Should we resume standardized testing of students this spring?
Policymakers place great stock in standardized test scores. In 1983, a landmark federal report, A Nation at Risk, pointed to declines over time in SAT scores and the U.S.’s middling performance on international assessments to claim a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education. The report touched off a movement toward standards-based accountability: holding school districts, schools and even teachers accountable for the academic performance of their students.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) expanded the federal role in school oversight, calling for testing nearly all children in grades 3 through 8 annually in English Language Arts and mathematics to assess their proficiency. This testing, and reporting of results for demographic subgroups of students, was intended to prevent schools from hiding behind the performance of their strongest students, with no pressure to close achievement gaps.
This logic continues today, boosted by the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA), which retains annual student testing, with supports and sanctions for low-performing schools.
We’ve learned that test-based accountability systems such as NCLB and ESSA change the behaviors of schools and teachers, for both better and worse. They have concentrated educators’ attention on the tested subjects and standards, though at the cost of reduced time devoted to other school subjects and goals. The evidence on whether they “work” as intended — spurring higher performance among all students, and shrinking the gaps separating more-advantaged students from those who start with few advantages — is mixed.
Last spring, as the pandemic disrupted the schooling of millions of American schoolchildren, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos granted waivers to states that allowed them to bypass the standardized tests required by ESSA. Writing in September, though, she announced that states could not count on waivers for the 2020-21 school year, and should plan to assess their students with the customary tests.
We are still in the midst of the pandemic, and schooling as we have known it for generations remains disrupted, with some students learning remotely and others coming to their brick-and-mortar schools on a daily basis. The configuration has changed with the pandemic’s surges, and it’s hard even to track which students are where. At the start of the 2020-21 school year, nearly three-quarters of the nation’s 100 largest school districts opened with fully remote learning, and about half of the nation’s districts overall opened fully remotely.
Teachers are the best judges of what their students know and can do, and teacher-developed assessments — perhaps supplemented by standardized formative assessments — are the best tools for matching students with the resources they need to fill in gaps in their skills and knowledge.
The primary argument for resuming testing is that we need to measure the consequences of the pandemic for student learning so we can develop a plan to respond. Already, there is evidence that this fall, students in grades 3 through 8 scored lower on standardized tests than similar students did in the fall of 2019, with sharper declines in mathematics than in reading. These early studies may have missed a swath of low-income students hurt the most by a shift to remote learning last spring, due to limited access to necessary technological and physical resources in their homes. Because disadvantaged students are more likely than other students to be learning remotely this year, achievement gaps may well have widened in the wake of the pandemic.
The arguments for waiving testing this spring are more persuasive. That’s because the state tests mandated by NCLB and ESSA have a very narrow purpose: to hold schools accountable for student performance. They are not designed to identify what individual schoolchildren know and can do with any specificity, and the results are made available to teachers and parents long after they are of any use in modifying instruction in the current year. Teachers are the best judges of what their students know and can do, and teacher-developed assessments — perhaps supplemented by standardized formative assessments — are the best tools for matching students with the resources they need to fill in gaps in their skills and knowledge.
There will be opportunities in the near future to assess the pandemic’s consequences on student learning. The federal National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, has already been rescheduled from its planned start date this month to January 2022, at which point thousands of students across the country in grades 4 and 8 will be assessed in reading and mathematics. This assessment — which has no stakes for schools, teachers or students — will cover all 50 states, with particular attention to 27 large urban school districts.
Proposing to resume universal standardized testing in America’s public schools, while relaxing the accountability provisions these tests support, is foolhardy. Accountability is all that those tests are designed for. For the past two decades, the tests mandated by NCLB and ESSA have driven classroom instruction.
Reinstating testing now, as the pandemic continues, is tantamount to saying, “Don’t think about elephants!” The elephant of testing will still be in the room.
Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Northwestern University, and served as a statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education.