The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

When schools in Columbus, Ohio, opened up classrooms this fall for the state’s third grade reading exam, just over a third of students showed up. The rest stayed home, for reasons district leaders can only guess at.

Some parents may have worried their child would contract the coronavirus, despite the district’s strict safety protocols. Others might have lacked the time or transportation to get their child to school. And some parents may have figured it wasn’t worth the effort or risk, since the state has temporarily waived a requirement that students pass the test to advance a grade, said Machelle Kline, the district’s chief accountability officer.

Kline said she’s confident more students will take the end-of-year tests in March and April, when the city’s elementary schools are scheduled to be open to all students. In the meantime, teachers are using other tools to identify the struggling readers the state test missed, including the use of assessments that can be taken at home.

But research by one of the nation’s major test-makers, NWEA, suggests that some of the most vulnerable remote learners are also skipping the interim tests meant to measure academic growth. That leaves districts like Columbus, where students in grades 6-12 are still studying online, with an incomplete picture of the pandemic’s impact on student learning.

The Columbus district’s experience with its third grade reading exam offers a preview of the challenges ahead, as schools nationwide prepare to resume standardized testing following a one-year federal reprieve. Though some state leaders are holding on to faint hope that President Joe Biden will suspend the exams for a second year, most are crafting plans to test students this spring, largely in person.

At the same time, many states are seeking state and federal permission to change how this year’s scores are used for accountability purposes, arguing that it would be unfair to punish schools, teachers or students for drops due to the pandemic.

“We’d like to have data, but not have consequences tied to the data,” said Chris Woolard, senior executive director for performance and impact for the Ohio Department of Education.

Those who favor a return to standardized testing say policymakers need comparable, state-level data to focus their spending on districts where the “Covid-slide” has been the steepest.

“We know the impact of Covid has not been distributed equally across communities, so it’s not going to make sense to spread our resources broadly, like peanut butter,” said Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit focused on the needs of underserved children. “We need to be strategic.”

Students in a third-grade class at a California elementary school participate in silent reading. Experts say children most likely to have lost ground in the past year are the most likely to sit out tests in the spring. Credit: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Opponents counter that testing during a pandemic will add to the stress students and teachers are under and cut into this year’s already constrained instructional time. They say schools already have plenty of evidence on which students have suffered the most under remote learning: low-income students and students of color.

“It’s only going to tell us what we already know,” said Joshua Starr, chief executive officer of PDK International, a professional organization for educators.

Some testing experts say that gaps in the data will render it useless for comparison purposes and could even lead to the misallocation of resources.

“Bad data is worse than no data, because people will still make decisions based on bad data,” said Scott Marion, executive director of the nonprofit National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment.

Both sides agree on one thing, though: The pandemic could be an inflection point in the long-running fight over standardized testing in the United States, a chance to reassess the role assessments play in state accountability systems, or at least to reduce their burden on schools.

“This is a great opportunity to think about how to do assessments better,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center focused on inequities in education.

Related: States will soon be free to transform standardized testing, but most won’t

Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESSA, states are required to test every student in seven grades annually, and to separate scores by race, income, English language proficiency and special education status. The end-of-year state standardized tests start in third grade. The results factor into state-specific accountability systems, which are used to identify schools in need of improvement and investment.

When the pandemic shut down schools last March, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave states waivers from the law’s annual testing and accountability requirements.

A few states, including Georgia, Michigan, New York and South Carolina, have requested the agency’s permission to skip standardized testing again this year.

“It’s a lot of anxiety and stress in a year that has already had an unprecedented amount of stress,” said Ryan Brown, chief communications officer for the South Carolina Department of Education, which wants to substitute a series of interim assessments for a big end-of-year one.

Educators are split on whether it’s worth administering standardized tests this spring. Federal requirements may leave them with no choice but to try.

But the former education secretary made clear in a September letter to state school chiefs that they shouldn’t expect another blanket waiver this year. Instead, she offered them guidance on how they might amend their accountability plans to account for Covid-era disruptions and missing data from last year, and gave them a February 1 deadline to submit their more limited waiver requests.

The guidance doesn’t relieve states of their responsibility to differentiate among schools, but it might permit them to change how they judge them. A state could seek to swap one metric for another, for example, or reduce the weight test scores carry in their ratings, said Scott Norton, deputy executive director of programs for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The guidance could also allow states to wait another year to identify new schools in need of support and improvement — an option several states plan to take advantage of, assuming it is retained by the Biden administration.

In late January, after Biden took office, the Education Department extended its deadline for requesting amendments to state accountability plans indefinitely. Many state leaders hope the new administration will go further, waiving the requirement that states use test scores to rate schools and districts, or even canceling the tests altogether — though most concede that’s unlikely.

Although Biden has expressed past support for ending the use of high-stake tests, some prominent civil rights groups and congressional Democrats have urged him not to abandon them this year.

40 percent of students are still attending “virtual-only” schools

“If we do not measure the opportunity gaps being exacerbated during Covid-19, we risk losing a generation of young people,” a coalition of a dozen education, civil rights and disability advocates warned in a November letter to the department.

That’s a concern that Biden’s pick for Education Secretary, Connecticut education commissioner Miguel Cardona, seems to share. In October, his department issued a memo that called Connecticut’s state assessments “important guideposts to our promise of equity.”

But the memo also said that Connecticut would seek a federal pass on “big ‘A’ accountability” this year. And in his Senate confirmation hearing in early February, Cardona told lawmakers that states should have a say over whether those assessments should be tied to accountability measures.

State policymakers aren’t waiting for Washington to act, and are making changes in how they use data from the mandated tests. Already, several states have said they won’t include test scores in teacher evaluation systems or won’t require students to pass a test to advance a grade or graduate high school. Some, like Mississippi, have done away with A-F letter grades for schools.

“Bad data is worse than no data, because people will still make decisions based on bad data.”

Scott Marion, executive director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment

“I just feel this needs to be a year of grace for districts and teachers and students,” said Carey Wright, Mississippi’s superintendent of education.

Yet Wright and some other state leaders say they’re planning to proceed with standardized testing, even if the new president grants another reprieve. In Oklahoma, Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said the tests will help the state allocate $665 million it received in the second round of federal stimulus money to schools with the greatest need.

“We can’t make those important investments without the most comparable data,” she said.

Related: Three reasons students should opt out of standardized tests — and three reasons they shouldn’t

With close to 40 percent of students still attending “virtual-only” schools, the biggest challenge confronting states as they head into standardized test season will be figuring out whether — and how — to test remote learners.

Some standardized test makers claim their exams can be taken remotely, provided that students have approved devices and access to the internet.

“This is a great opportunity to think about how to do assessments better”

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education

But nearly a year after districts and nonprofits began distributing thousands of laptops and hotspots to students stuck studying at home, access to those technologies remains uneven. In a recent survey by Education Week, more than a fifth of households said they still lack reliable access to a computer or other digital device and nearly a quarter said they don’t have dependable internet.

There is also the problem of test security. Though the standardized test makers say teachers and staff can proctor their end-of-year tests remotely, many schools aren’t set up to do so.

And based on results from earlier in the year, when students took lower-stakes standardized tests at home, remote proctoring might not work that well. When two of the top test makers, NWEA and Renaissance, compared results from interim exams administered before the pandemic and after, they discovered that some of the younger learners performed significantly better when they took the test at home — a finding that hints at parental “help.” In Columbus, school leaders held a talk for parents about the purposes of diagnostic testing — to provide a snapshot of a student’s independent skills so that teachers can give them appropriate work — after a few kindergarteners who could barely pick out words tested at a third- or fourth- grade level, Kline said.

“I just feel this needs to be a year of grace for students and teachers.”

Carey Wright, Mississippi’s superintendent of education

“As parents, we don’t want to see our children struggling,” Ronda Welch, the district’s director of testing, said she told them. “But if they score too high, that will make things more challenging for them.”

Even if states could overcome these logistical challenges, it would be difficult for them to compare or combine results from remote and in-person exams, testing experts say. After all, a student sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by siblings faces far more distractions than a student sitting in a quiet classroom, separated six feet from other students.

“Even minor differences in administrative conditions can have major impacts on test scores,” said Daniel Koretz, a research professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Given these challenges, few states are planning to test students remotely, Norton said.

Related: Researchers can detect when students aren’t trying on standardized tests

Some states, including Texas, will require remote learners to test in person, either at school, or at an alternative site set up by the district, such as a performing arts center, recreational center, or hotel. Others, like Ohio, will offer in-school testing to remote learners, but allow families to opt out.

Woolard, who oversees testing for the state, said administrators there are still calculating participation rates for the fall’s reading test, but believe the vast majority of third graders took the exam. The drop-off, it appears, was largely confined to the large urban districts, like Columbus and Cleveland, which were operating online-only, he said.

Since those cities serve some of the state’s most vulnerable students, districts will need to look to other measures to “fill in the gaps” on learning loss, he said.

Nearly three quarters of urban school districts were still operating in fully remote mode in December, compared to only a third of suburban districts

But there are troubling signs that many students aren’t taking the interim assessments districts use to identify struggling learners, either. Nationally, one in every four students attending schools that administered the NWEA MAP Growth assessment in both the fall of 2019 and 2020 did not take the test in 2020, an analysis by the test-maker found.

The analysis didn’t distinguish between students who took the test in-person and those who took it remotely, but it did find higher rates of attrition among Black and Hispanic students, students with lower academic achievement and students from schools with higher concentrations of low-income students.

Failing to account for such participation gaps could lead districts to “underestimate the magnitude of achievement decline,” potentially resulting in “the under-provision of support and services to the neediest students,” the authors warn.

Other studies suggest the missing students are more likely to be attending school online. In December, nearly three quarters of urban school districts — which disproportionately enroll low-income students and students of color — were still operating in fully remote mode, compared to only a third of suburban districts, according to The Center on Reinventing Public Education.

In an effort to test as many remote learners as possible, many states are extending their testing windows, offering testing on weekends, and testing students individually, to minimize their contact with others.

“It’s a lot of anxiety and stress in a year that has already had an unprecedented amount of stress”

Ryan Brown, spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Education

Nevada may even seek to extend its spring testing into the fall, if students in Las Vegas still aren’t in school in the spring, said Jonathan Moore, the state’s deputy superintendent for student achievement. The district, which enrolls two-thirds of the Nevada’s students, is the state’s largest and most diverse.

In nothing else, state leaders hope the Biden administration will offer them a break from a requirement that they test 95 percent of their students.

“I don’t think there’s a state in the nation that will be able to have a 95 percent participation rate this year,” said Wright, the Mississippi state superintendent. “There’s going to have to be a big asterisk in the trend line.”

This story about standardized testing was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

1 Letter

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. Here is a letter I sent to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) about this exact issue:
    Dear Concerned Educators at DPI,

    My name is Mary Birmingham and I am a School Psychologist in the Madison Metropolitan School District. Not only am I a School Psychologist and a Positive Behavior Coach but also an educator committed to dismantling systemic racism in our schools.

    It is with this lens that I am writing to you in protest of the mandate to administer the Wisconsin Forward Exam this spring if schools shall reopen. The mandate to test children who have been learning remotely for over a year and who are emotionally feeling depleted and vulnerable is one of the most harmful practices I have encountered as we try to safely reopen our schools. Paramount to our reopening will be not only providing safe physical spaces where children and staff and families can reconnect, but also emotionally safe spaces where students and staff who are vulnerable and feeling disconnected can safely find a place of acceptance and connection. Furthermore, standardized testing has long been weaponized against marginalized students, reinforcing a model of deficit thinking which then gets pushed onto schools and leads to creating more racist and inequitable practices within and between schools. To use a weapon in a time of extreme uncertainty and vulnerability for our staff and students is harmful and immoral.

    Furthermore, as a school psychologist and educator, I highly question the validity of administering a test which was not standardized on a large population of students who were learning remotely for a year, with variable technology access as well as extremely different support structures within the home setting. Last year, we also experienced less instructional days given the challenges and needs in transitioning to virtual learning. These all are factors which make the test invalid. Truly, what would the Forward Exam be measuring? An invalid measure with unreliable results makes this even more questionable as we move FORWARD to open our schools.

    It is in this context that I am writing to ask you to please remove the mandate for Wisconsin Schools this spring, allowing staff and students to have the space and time to focus on what is truly needed for emotional and physical safety.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    Sincerely,

    Mary Birmingham
    School Psychologist
    Wright Middle School
    Madison Metropolitan School District

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *