Editor's note: This is an installment of Fast Forward, a recurring column focused on long-term cultural and technological shifts impacting public education. This edition focuses on efforts to find new and better ways to assess student learning and progress.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, a growing number of educators were questioning the merits of standardized assessments. When spring shutdowns upended the education system, the assessments and the stakes often tied to students' performance on them, like teacher evaluations, were swiftly postponed nationwide and among the first to be negotiated out of teacher contracts in some places.
Furthering debate, as many colleges announced their decisions to waive SAT and ACT requirements for admission for the 2021-22 academic year, the value and necessity of standardized college entrance exams also came into question. Even before the health crisis, many colleges had dropped the SAT/ACT from their admissions process.
As the nation's schools reopen, many decision-makers in charge of curriculum and instruction are leaning toward using diagnostic and interim assessments. And in late July, the National Assessment Governing Board said it would move forward with administering the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which provides a nationally representative snapshot of student progress in reading, math, science and writing for grades 4 and 8.
The place for standardized and high-stakes exams in K-12 is a big question mark, especially with the renewed focus on equity and access in light of the pandemic.
"A bunch of state assessment leaders talking about 'What are we going to do next year?' Everybody just assumed that we would be able to test again next year, and it's looking less and less likely," said Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, an organization focused on improving assessment and accountability practices. "But people are still saying that we’d like to have some kind of data. We try to think, 'Well, if we can’t do a regular state test, then what kind of test can we do?'"
The politics of standardized assessments
Marion and others, while skeptical of the current models and purposes of standardized testing, predict they'll stay put even though the Every Student Succeeds Act reauthorization is on the table after the 2020-21 school year.
Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest, an organization that tracks state assessment requirements, said federal program changes to ESSA would set the tone for state decisions. For example, after the current iteration of ESSA scaled back on the Bush-era No Child Left Behind act, states also walked back some testing requirements.
Different political ideologies from the right (which emphasizes school accountability) and left (which includes advocates who believe standardized tests shine a light on inequities) have worked together to keep standardized tests largely in place.
What's changing, however, is the approach to the tests. "We’ve just got to get smarter about how we use our testing," said Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA. Instead of tying state assessments to graduation, grade promotions, gifted and talented programs and educators' pay raises, results could be used narrowly for gathering data on students' strengths and weaknesses, personalizing their learning, and monitoring their progress.
A comprehensive alternative system
Minnich said most districts using NWEA assessments want to continue using them in some way. The organization's interim assessments are used in more than 10,000 schools districts. But Minnich and Marion agree state and district leaders should work together to harmonize the purposes and uses of interim and state assessments.
Summative assessments in their current form, Marion said, come too late in the year and are not tied closely to curriculum, which make it unlikely they support instruction. Still, until now, state summative assessments have been the "big kid on a seesaw," he said, with other assessments taking a backseat.
"If anything, the state summative assessment should have the smaller footprint," Marion said, adding leaders "need to be thinking about systems of assessment that need to be connected in a coherent way."
Nebraska, for example, is working on piloting a three-year adaptive model where students in grades 3-8 only take three interim assessments — eliminating a fourth, summative, exam — from which summative information is collected.
"That ability to get two different measures of growth should increase how much weight we put on growth instead of simply status or proficiency," said Jeremy Heneger, director of statewide assessment at the Nebraska Department of Education.
The shift, said Heneger, is also an attempt to emphasize the instructional feedback provided by interim assessments and incorporate growth in accountability metrics rather than scores. Making testing requirements uniform and limited in number across the state would also allow districts to easily pull student proficiency data even if they bounce from one district to another.
Impact of shifts away from SAT and ACT
Conversation around standardized testing, overall, is largely fractured in the education field, with such K-12 models disconnected from higher education institutions' recent and increasing long-term decisions to scale back standardized college entrance exam requirements.
According to Schaeffer, colleges' decisions to loosen SAT and ACT requirements have not reverberated in K-12, considering many states still require testing for students. "It’s like a wild west land grab, the way SAT/ACT are trying to gobble up states," Marion also said.
In states where the test-optional movement for college admissions has been strongest, like Massachusetts, leaders are "still latched onto K-12 testing," Schaeffer said. In New York, where the state university system and the New York City College of Technology went test-optional, the state is debating whether to overhaul its K-12 testing systems, but that needle "has not moved."
On the other hand, states where standardized tests are deeply embedded remain wedded to testing in both K-12 and for state college admissions. These include Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, for example, Schaeffer said.
New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts are expected to see debate this year about whether their K-12 testing will be reformed. "The COVID-19-related suspensions of testing have forced people to rethink what they’re doing," Schaeffer said. "We’ll see how many return to the status quo."
Benefits of standardized tests
While Marion said SAT/ACT emphasis in K-12 could change if more colleges move away from the admissions tests, he said they have benefits. In some states where all juniors take SAT/ACT, there has been a small increase in the proportion of kids who pursue college, Marion said.
"It’s not a dramatic [change], but it’s something, and that’s pretty good," Marion said.
Those who argue in support of standardized tests also point out that they have been a gateway to opportunity for students who otherwise perform poorly during the school year but excel on college entrance exams. The exams were also intended to be a shift away from a legacy system of college entrance toward a more meritocratic approach.
And state assessment models, if implemented correctly, can lend themselves to informative data and personalized results, Heneger said. Many believe that's going to be especially important in the aftermath of the pandemic and school closures, which have exacerbated learning gaps and broken communication between many teachers and their students.