Assessment Update IV: Using Data to Support Students During COVID-19 Recovery

Assessment Update IV: Using Data to Support Students During COVID-19 Recovery

The Data Quality Campaign began sharing updates on the state of 2021 assessments last year and we’ll continue to share periodic updates on the assessment conversations we’re seeing. Check DQC’s blog for future updates.

Statewide assessments are still on for spring 2021—at least for now. Leaders in at least 23 states (AL, AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, ID, IL, IN, MA, MO, MS, NJ, NM, NC, OH, OK, SD, TN, TX, UT, WY) have publicly supported assessments as a tool to see where students stand and inform recovery efforts. Arkansas Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Ivy Pfeffer affirmed her state’s commitment to testing this week, saying:

“The results from the test will let educators and parents know how much students have learned throughout the school year and whether they are on track to achieve the success they need later in life…this testing is no less critical now than in any other year.”

Yet this support is not universal. At least five states have announced plans to request a federal waiver for 2020-21 assessments (GA, MI, MT, NY, SC).

The US Department of Education this week announced that they would extend the deadline for states to submit one-year changes to their ESSA plans; it is still not clear whether the Biden administration will stay the course on assessments or grant additional waivers. In his confirmation hearings this week, Secretary of Education Nominee Dr. Miguel Cardona said states should have a say in how they will administer assessments. He also acknowledged the value of having assessments this year, saying:

“If we don’t assess where our students are and their level of performance, it’s going to be difficult for us to provide targeted support and resource allocation in the manner that can best support the closing of the gaps that have been exacerbated due to this pandemic.”

Following the hearing, 19 civil rights, social justice, disability rights, and education advocacy organizations—including the Data Quality Campaign—sent a letter to Dr. Cardona, urging him to refrain from granting assessment waivers, and to call on all states to administer summative statewide assessments.

Assessment data is crucial to ensuring an equitable recovery—though some worry about the impact on students and teachers.

National leaders and advocates continue to promote assessments as a critical tool for ensuring equity. House Education and Labor Committee Chair Rep. Bobby Scott said in a recent interview: “You have no way of targeting your resources to reduce the achievement gap if you don’t know where the achievement gap is…. if you haven’t done any assessment to ascertain who’s ahead and who’s behind.”

While some local leaders see the value of assessments to enable data-driven decisionmaking, teachers groups from New York to California have called on state leaders to cancel 2020–21 assessments. This weekend, a coalition of 74 local, state, and national organizations signed onto a letter asking the Biden administration to waive federal assessment requirements this year, citing arguments including student stress, instructional time, the inequitable impact of the pandemic, and the minimal value of assessment data to support instruction.

Most agree that schools and students should not be punished for assessment performance this year.

States are already taking steps to reduce the stakes of this year’s assessments. So far, at least 11 states (AZ, CT, ID, MA, MO, MS, NC, NY, TN, TX, WY) have announced that they will hold schools and districts harmless for 2020–21 assessment results. At least five (GA, MA, NJ, PA, TX) have taken steps to eliminate negative consequences for teachers and students by waiving graduation and grade promotion requirements, reducing the weight of assessments in students’ final grades, or ensuring test scores are not used for teacher evaluation.

While there’s agreement that the priority for this year should be collecting data to understand where students stand, there’s concern that leaders may be losing sight of the purpose of accountability. In Tennessee, legislators recently passed a bill (SB7002/HB7004), which requires that 3rd graders meet reading standards on this year’s standardized tests in order to progress to the next grade. House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R) defended this measure, arguing that it would be critical to ensure students had the skills they need to succeed.

It is still not clear if assessments can be administered remotely—leaving states to plan for in-person assessments.

Vendors are confident in their ability to support remote assessments, yet early results from fall 2020 assessments raise concerns about accessibility, equity, and the quality of the data from remote administration. In Shelby County, TN, officials said that surprisingly high test scores for remote learners was likely due to parents helping at home. They maintain that this data is still valuable for supporting remediation and recovery efforts, but should be interpreted alongside teacher observations and other available information on student learning.

Meanwhile, more states are moving forward with plans for in-person tests. At least eight states (AL, AR, FL, IL, MN, MO, NC, NJ) have already said no to remote assessments and plan to help districts safely administer assessments in person. A few have not ruled it out entirely—Massachusetts officials are working on options that will allow younger students to take assessments at home, and California plans to offer its statewide English Learner (EL) assessment remotely.

The prospect of in-person assessments has many concerned about the health of students and staff—particularly the EL student community, which has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Teachers and advocates from states including CO, FL, MN, RI, and VA have called on state officials to cancel statewide EL assessments this year, arguing that these students have had less access to instruction and are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of in-person testing.

Parents, educators, and policymakers cannot go another year without assessments. Even if they look different than in years prior, having data from assessments this year will enable educators and system leaders to chart a path forward and ensure every student has what they need to get back on track. DQC will continue to track these important issues and provide updates as they develop.