Access, Communications, Transparency

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of April 12

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of April 12

As we all try to understand our rapidly evolving education environment during the COVID-19 crisis and the uncertainty that surrounds it, the Data Quality Campaign is working to elevate what’s happening—whether it’s concrete examples of what’s working in states and districts, ideas and proposals from the field, or things our organization and others are exploring. To accomplish this, we’re periodically bringing you our thoughts on the most salient conversations happening on navigating education during the pandemic and future recovery efforts.

We’re writing this column together to combine our perspectives: Jenn brings years of experience in the classroom and in education leadership at the district and federal levels, while Paige’s expertise comes from more than a decade working on state and federal education data policy and issues.

The debate about 2021 student assessments has been going on for some time (we’re on the record that we think the pros of doing tests this year outweigh the cons), and there’s big news this week as the US Department of Education (ED) began responding to states’ requests for assessment waivers.

Secretary Cardona said in his confirmation hearing that no student should be required to go into a school building just to take a test, and ED’s guidance is true to that form. Essentially, they’re telling states that they must administer tests in every district where it’s “viable,” and defining viable as a district where students are back in the building, not remote. That’s why DC, which is almost entirely remote, received a blanket waiver to cancel tests, and states like California were guided to offer the statewide assessment to all districts as an option, but that only those districts where it’s viable should take it.

Reading all the ED guidance, we kept coming back to one conclusion—if remote isn’t viable for state test administration then how was it ever viable for learning? We know, per the IES survey, which students are in the building and which are remote. And the all-remote students tend to be the historically underserved students whose performance ESSA was designed to shine a light on in the first place. Declining to test these students will only mean state leaders have less information about how to serve them, which could exacerbate existing inequities.

Plus, districts have been administering their own tests (MAP, i-Ready, Fastbridge, etc.) throughout the pandemic. Many districts have stated that they don’t need data from statewide tests because they have all the data they need from those other tests. How did they administer those tests if statewide tests aren’t viable? If the method is good enough for a district test, it should be good enough for a state test.

Furthermore, districts using these locally chosen tests are not obligated to report results publicly, and the results provide no comparable information across districts as a statewide assessment would. Thirteen thousand school districts were forced to make choices about how to best serve students during the pandemic, and this lack of comparable information means we won’t have the information we need to examine the consequences of those choices and guide decisions moving forward.

The decision to grant waivers comes from ED, but at the end of the day, these are state tests. States choose the tests, and states get the biggest value from them because they yield comparable results across all their districts about what happened to their students It’s the states that lose the most when they don’t have the critical information from these assessments.

It’s a frustrating conversation, and the long and short of it is that we may have preserved the federal policy to assess students but it’s the students who are losing out.