Looking Toward the Future of Standardized Testing

Looking Toward the Future of Standardized Testing

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a world of changes to the field of education, and while some will fade away when the pandemic ends, others are likely to have more staying power—including the way we choose to administer standardized testing.

Of course, administrators and educators are no strangers to the challenge of equitably conducting standardized assessments, but the issue was brought to new heights this year when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos waived federal testing requirements in science, reading, and mathematics due to pandemic-related school closures. Beyond giving us an immediate reason to change the way we test and collect data, the pandemic may have provided an impetus to make more permanent changes to American standardized testing methods.

To test or not to test?

At a time when most schools are using hybrid or entirely virtual teaching models, the detailed and explicit data collection requirements of state standardized testing and the Nation's Report Card have proven difficult to fulfill. For instance, securely recording and transporting data to ensure accuracy of results is considerably harder when students are each taking a test from a different location, rather than all together in a single classroom.

In September, Secretary DeVos told school districts that they should expect to meet federal standardized testing requirements for the 2020–2021 academic year—and some states promptly pushed back against the edict. In their waiver request, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and State Superintendent Richard Woods contended that “given the ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic and the resulting state budget reductions, it would be counterproductive to continue with high-stakes testing for the 2020–21 school year."

Conversely, in states that rely on standardized tests to monitor student growth, further suspension would likely pose more difficulties. After expressing concern that missing two years of student data could make it difficult to assess how students were affected by the pandemic, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) would be administered in spring 2021 as planned, with the goal of preventing "this public health crisis [from becoming] a generational education crisis."

Taking standardized tests online

With many states using online or hybrid learning this school year, administering standardized tests online may seem like a logical step. However, prior data on online standardized testing has raised concerns about providing fair online testing accommodations to all students.

When two researchers at the American Institutes for Research compared the results of Massachusetts students who took a national assessment on paper to those who took the same test online, they discovered that the latter group had significantly lower results. More specifically, those who took the test online performed as though they had lost 3.4 months of learning in math and 7.3 months of learning in language arts—a phenomenon that researcher Ben Backes referred to as "the online penalty" in a July interview with Edutopia.

The work of Backes and his colleague, James Cowan, Recognizing the “online penalty” and taking measures to control for its effects is one avenue states could explore for standardized testing next spring.

Assessments and progress-monitoring

Beyond taking measures to account for the effects of the "online penalty" as they gear up for standardized testing next spring, states may also consider changing how they monitor progress and track school efficacy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a September letter to state school officials, Secretary DeVos maintained that although waiving state testing last spring was "the right call," summative assessments remain critical for monitoring student performance. With this in mind, DeVos suggested that states consider mastery-based and competency assessments to gauge progress.

Education stakeholders like Jeremy Heneger, director of statewide assessment at Nebraska’s Department of Education, have also emphasized the value in collecting assessment data that measures student growth. Indeed, Nebraska is currently working to overlap interim testing for students in third through eighth grades, then use this data to extrapolate summative information. Such a model has the potential to prove useful during the pandemic and beyond, as interim tests allow educators to assess and address students' needs during the school year without the need for a summative end-of-year exam.

Indeed, Scott Marion of the Center for Assessment pointed out that state summative assessments occur so late in the school year that they cannot support instruction, whereas diagnostic and interim tests allow educators to measure progress and adjust instruction accordingly. "If anything," Marion noted, "the state summative assessment should have the smaller footprint."

Rethinking future approaches to assessment

While effectively administering standardized tests during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the immediate concern for educators, the issues raised by the pandemic can inform the way our country approaches assessments far into the future. While it is important to collect data on student proficiency and then study that data on a large scale, this moment in our nation's history is emphasizing the importance of collecting data throughout the school year and adjusting instruction to meet student needs.

However independent districts and states choose to administer standardized assessments next spring, the national dialogue on these tests is shifting. By adjusting for the "online penalty" and considering alternative or mastery-based measures, we may emerge from this pandemic with a different perspective on what it means to learn and how we choose to measure success.

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