May Assessment Update: Using Data to Support Students during COVID-19 Recovery

May Assessment Update: 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.

Testing season is in full swing—but the debate over the value of this year’s assessments continues. In March, the Biden administration announced that all states besides DC must administer 2021 statewide assessments, with flexibility on how and when. Officials in states including Arkansas, Arizona, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Texas have since doubled down on the importance of assessment data for understanding student needs and targeting resources.

However, a handful of states are rolling back assessment requirements at the local level. California and New Mexico will let districts use local assessments if they determine administering the statewide test is unfeasible. Oregon officials also said districts will not face consequences if they fail to administer the 2021 statewide assessment. In response, national advocates are urging federal officials to ensure states fulfill their commitment to equity by administering assessments wherever possible and sharing disaggregated performance data.

Students in many places have already begun testing. Just three states (MD, NJ, WA) will postpone 2021 assessments until the fall. Districts in Illinois and Pennsylvania had the option to test this spring or next fall; however, many districts including Chicago Public Schools decided to move forward with assessments now and minimize impact on the next school year.

Virtually all assessments are being administered in person, with accommodations for students learning remotely. Despite reassurances from state officials, some parents are still keeping students home due to health concerns. Opt-out policies vary across states: Tennessee, for example, does not officially condone the practice, while Washington lets students sit out assessments at the request of a parent or guardian. In cities like Chicago, teachers’ groups and anti-testing advocates have launched campaigns urging parents to opt out of this year’s assessments.

So far, participation varies widely across states and districts. States like Arkansas and Indiana are on track to meet or exceed participation requirements. Officials in Memphis, Tennessee cited the high number of students still learning remotely (40 percent) as a reason for low participation. Some districts in upstate New York have reported participation as low as 10 percent and in New York City, leaders have actively discouraged participation by requiring parents to “opt in” for their students to be tested.

New York teachers and advocates grabbed headlines this month when they reported that 2021 assessment questions were being recycled from old tests, raising concerns about the quality of this year’s test results. In response, state officials said they lacked sufficient time to develop new items after their original waiver request was denied; they also reiterated claims that assessment results would be invalid in any case due to variation in instruction. Scott Marion of the Center for Assessment said states may reuse old items as a way to ensure test validity, but acknowledged that the confusion around this practice may erode public trust in the results.

Over half of all states have received federal accountability waivers (AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, FL, GA, IL, KY, MA, MI, MN, MS, MT, NC, ND, NJ, NM, OH, OR, PA, SC, SD, TX, UT, WA, WI, WV). At the state level, leaders continue to push for additional measures to ensure teachers and students are not penalized for test performance. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran recently issued an executive order to allow districts to waive the use of test scores for grade promotion, graduation, and teacher evaluation. This news was met with gratitude from Florida parents and local leaders, who said it would help to reduce the stress of testing on teachers and students.

With accountability off the table, state leaders are considering what we can learn from assessment results. Indiana officials recently announced plans to partner with the Center for Assessment to study results from this year’s assessments. State leaders in Florida have already committed to using assessment data to measure skip-year growth—the most comprehensive and equitable measure of student progress and school quality, and a key reason for continuing with 2021 assessments.

Other leaders and advocates are thinking about changes to assessment and accountability going forward. Some are looking to other data points to understand students’ needs: Kentucky and Oregon have already said they will administer student surveys on instructional access and well-being alongside this year’s assessments. Other state leaders want to change the way they test: Virginia lawmakers are considering a bill to shift to a “through-year” assessment model, where students would take multiple tests throughout the school year, and Illinois will invest $35M of federal stimulus funding in expanding interim assessment options for districts. Still others want to reimagine the purpose of statewide assessments and accountability. In a recent webinar, California State Board of Education President and Learning Policy Institute CEO Linda Darling-Hammond said:

“Keep your eyes peeled [for the next stage in the assessment conversation] . . . . I think what we’re going also going to see, and I hope, is that this will be the beginning of a moment where we decouple assessment from punitive assessments entirely. I think there’s a recognition of that in the administration, that this is a time to reinvent everything . . . and to reinvent assessments so they’re really focused explicitly on support for teaching and learning.”

Assessment results are not the only data point that matters—but they are critical for supporting students and ensuring education equity. Without comparable data on student performance, state leaders cannot see or address gaps in access or outcomes. Parents also deserve information on their students’ progress—particularly after a year as tumultuous as 2020–21. By gathering and sharing data from 2021 statewide assessments, state leaders can ensure equity and transparency moving forward.