On March 3, 2020, a deadly tornado hit parts of Tennessee, wiping out two buildings in the Wilson County School District and damaging many students’ homes.
Later that month, the novel coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools across the state — and the country — and students in the Nashville suburb would go without instruction until August, when the district was able to establish both hybrid and fully remote learning options, said Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright.
Early on, Wright told teachers any assessments would be “soft,” or not punitive in nature.
Wright and other Tennessee superintendents went to state legislators to ask for the same treatment for 2021 standardized assessments, maintaining if students were required to take the tests, districts would be held harmless for the results, which are typically used to inform things like school letter grades and teacher evaluations. And in January, the state legislature passed a law to that effect for schools that get at least 80% of their students to participate.
Wright said she was generally pleased with the decision, because she finds the data useful for determining where students are — especially those who have been fully remote since the fall — as long as it’s not used for high-stakes accountability measures, per usual.
But the ruling hasn’t come without controversy.
“Educators and students already face many new challenges and additional stress in the coming year, it would be unfair and inappropriate to put them through the state’s high-stakes summative testing system,” Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown said in a statement on behalf of the union, which advocated for skipping the tests altogether. “Moreover, because of the wide disruption in instruction there will be no validity or reliability in TNReady data.”
The Tennessee debate is a snapshot of what school districts everywhere are facing going into the 2021 assessment season, with numbers of educators and education advocacy organizations falling on both sides of the issue.
But while states received a waiver from the federal government to forego the assessments in the 2019-20 school year, the Biden administration announced last week the tests will be required this year, with the caveat districts may have flexibilities such as more time to administer them.
“I think folks are still really wrestling with this. It’s interesting because every state context is different, and how the pandemic has hit every single state is so different,” said Abby Javurek, vice president of solution vision and impact at NWEA, a nonprofit focused on assessment. Javurek previously oversaw assessments and accountability at the South Dakota Department of Education.
“I don’t think that anybody is really advocating for or excited about the premise of asking kids that haven’t been in school to come in and take tests,” she said. “I think what we hear from the district level is that they need the data this year to know where kids are, and that we also need to understand that, especially given the different context that all of our students are learning in, our interpretation and our comparison that we do with the data may not be interchangeable.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s guidance, issued by Acting Assistant Secretary Ian Rosenblum, emphasizes “the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments.”
It allows states to consider administering a shortened version of the tests, offer remote administration where feasible, and/or extend the testing window to the greatest extent practicable, including by offering multiple testing windows or extending the testing window into the summer or beginning of next school year.
“We do have some states that are, at least as of now, expecting to go forth with testing this year that feel like they have the infrastructure that’s there to do that; there’s enough face-to-face instruction going on that they can plan that,” said Javurek said.
Yet others are considering a variety of permitted formats. And as school leaders await more guidance from their states, their districts are preparing for multiple scenarios.
More time and remote accommodations — yet questions remain
In New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy announced plans to proceed with testing even before the Biden administration’s announcement, Superintendent Kenyon Kummings of Wildwood Public Schools is unsure what that will look like, especially in districts like his on a hybrid schedule. He said now, more than ever, teachers need all the instructional time they can get.
Though the standardized assessments would’ve originally taken place in March, the state is offering districts more time to prepare. But otherwise, as of his recent interview with K-12 Dive, Kummings said there hasn’t been a lot of guidance.
“It’s a puzzle in a more normal year … but that’s going to be even more challenging now, in that you’re trying to schedule cohort A, cohort B and your students who are still remote because they have concerns about the virus in schools,” he said.
Kummings, who is opposed to using assessments for high-stakes purposes, said remote testing opens another can of worms with questions about student privacy and who will be in charge of proctoring.
The Education Law Center, based in New Jersey, came out against the state education department’s plans for an “untested and highly problematic computer-based ‘remote option’” which, the group said, “raises issues of the reliability and validity of the results, the security of the data, and the privacy of student information.”
“The assessments had an issue prior to the pandemic but now that we’re heading into this conversation about whether or not we should have these assessments in the spring, I think a whole new set of questions and concerns has come up,” Kummings said.
Some states are exploring shortened tests that will provide a high-level overview of where students are, Javurek said. She added, however, that shorter formats can provide less detail about where exactly a student may be struggling, though educators still “get a pretty good measure of where students are in that domain.”
California rolled out plans in November for shorter tests to replace its English-language arts and math Smarter Balanced Assessments in 3rd through 8th and 11th grades this school year. The shorter versions of the tests cut down about two hours of test time, depending on grade level.
Moving forward without waivers
Randy Squier, superintendent of Coxsackie-Athens Central School District in New York’s Hudson Valley, said the state’s Board of Regents will meet in mid-March to issue emergency regulations regarding testing. Logistically, he said the tests shouldn’t be much of a hurdle for his schools because 80% of students are attending class in-person on a normal schedule, and the district is not anticipating having to administer tests to remote learners.
“I can imagine for the hybrid schools that only have the kids twice a week, they’re going to have a very complex testing schedule,” he said, adding that will lead to inequities among test-takers.
“Every district is going to be doing it differently,” he said. “And that’s nobody’s fault.”