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COVID-19 Disruptions Raise Questions on Future of Testing, Accountability

The disruptions caused by COVID-19 are raising big questions about assessment and accountability systems for this school year — and potentially for the longer term.

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One of former boxer Mike Tyson’s most famous maxims is that everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.

In the 2020-21 academic year, standardized testing — and just about every other aspect of school — is “getting punched in the face by COVID,” said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, invoking the heavyweight champion at a panel on testing and accountability during the Education Writers Association’s 2020 National Seminar.

Put another way: The disruptions caused by COVID-19 are raising big questions about assessment and accountability systems for this school year — and potentially for the longer term.

These questions aren’t new, said Laura Jimenez, the director of standards and accountability at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank. The coronavirus pandemic is prompting schools to make what she sees as long-necessary changes.

“We do have overtesting. We do have low-quality tests, and we do have poor practices in schools around testing, like rampant test prep. We have to address that,” Jimenez said. “We shouldn’t pretend that the way we administer tests in this country has always been beneficial.”

Marion, Jimenez and Richard Woods, Georgia’s state superintendent of schools, walked reporters through the difference between assessment and accountability; questions reporters should ask about assessments and the data they provide; and best practices around administering tests during the coronavirus pandemic.

Assessment vs. Accountability: What’s the Difference?

In education, student assessments take many forms and are used for a variety of purposes, from pre-assessments at the beginning of a lesson or unit to pop quizzes and tests at the end of a unit to large-scale, statewide assessments. (See this overview of assessment, from “The Glossary of Education Reform,” for a helpful primer.)

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, all states are required to administer “summative assessments” in math and reading/language arts each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The exams are based on state content standards.

The results of those assessments are a key driver of state accountability systems, including identifying low-performing schools for assistance and improvement. In addition, annual state report cards on districts and schools must include test results, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and other factors. Some states require letter grades for schools, driven in part by standardized test scores.

Marion and Jimenez both suggested that any statewide assessment given during the 2020-21 school year should not be used for accountability purposes.

“There’s an unfortunate conflation of assessment and accountability in our world, and they are separate,” Marion said.

Jimenez — formerly a special assistant at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration — said one possible solution for this school year could be keeping the federal testing requirements but waiving the obligation to issue a rating or identification of low-performing schools.

Woods said Georgia has submitted a waiver to “pull back on high-stakes testing this year” and focus instead on formative assessments. (A “formative” assessment is generally given by an individual classroom teacher to gauge where students are in their learning and to help inform instruction.)

In spring 2020, soon after the pandemic took hold, the U.S. Department of Education told states they could suspend standardized, end-of-year tests in reading and math, and it waived federal accountability requirements. The Trump administration has signaled that it will not allow similar cancellations and waivers in spring 2021. But that could change if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins the election.

What Should Reporters Ask About COVID-Era Assessments?

While assessment and accountability aren’t the same thing, accountability relies on the year-to-year data that summative assessments have traditionally provided, Jimenez said. States are sometimes using up to three years of testing data to measure growth in student achievement over time.

“There are large-scale implications already for not having last school year’s assessment data,” Jimenez said.

The one-year gap — which could easily turn into a multi-year gap — provides an opportunity to rethink accountability going forward, Marion said.

In the meantime, many school districts are changing what testing looks like for the next school year, and each district’s path looks a bit different. Claire McInerny, an education reporter for KUT public media in Austin, Texas, and the panel’s moderator, asked the speakers what journalists should look for when reporting on different assessments.

Panelists suggested:

  • Consider the consistency of metrics among assessments within a state
  • Determine what kind of assessment is being used (for example, formative, diagnostic, or interim), and ask what problem it will help address and why
  • Ask whether the assessments are aligned with the curriculum and state standards

Administering Tests During COVID-19

One issue many education reporters will encounter this academic year is how schools are administering tests when students can’t always be together in the same room with their teacher.

Marion said his organization is looking at best practices of remote proctoring, but he cautioned that doing so effectively is difficult. Woods pointed out that he would be concerned about the validity of tests administered with remote proctoring.

“If you’re having young kids do extremely well … I think your parents are helping, which is understandable,” he said.

Marion also pointed out that the College Board used remote proctoring when it administered Advanced Placement tests in the spring but did not do so for the SAT.

“That to me is an indication of, you know, how they thought it worked,” Marion said.

Woods and Marion suggested that a better method may be cycling students through cleaned buildings, following social distancing rules as they took the test.

Regardless of how tests are administered during the pandemic, Woods told parents in Georgia not to “worry about the tests” in a September press release. The announcement responded to the Trump administration’s indication that it would not grant federal testing waivers for the 2020-21 school year.

“Given the unique environment we are in, [the tests] are neither valid nor reliable measures of academic progress or achievement,” Woods wrote.

Jimenez also noted that tests weren’t the only challenge schools were battling during the pandemic-induced punch in the face.

“While assessment and measuring is important, equally important is attention on the quality of instruction,” she said. “No matter what it looks like [this] year, it’s going to be such a huge hurdle to provide quality.”