In June, as positivity rates for the coronavirus were rising, President Trump said at a rally that the U.S. should “slow the testing down, please.” His point was that the COVID crisis was increasing because we were testing more. This is, of course, absurd. Particularly when it comes to public health, problems aren’t amplified by measurement; they are revealed by it.
The same principle applies to testing academic progress in schools. While of course imperfect, objective measures of student learning are essential, particularly as we work together to get a clear picture of the academic impact the schools shutdown has had on students across the country. Yet, too many educational voices are calling for states to drop the objective, external assessments used nationwide to help grasp a full picture of students’ academic health. In Ohio, for instance, a Senate committee passed a bill giving the state superintendent the authority to apply for the state’s annual tests to be waived. Lawmakers in states like South Carolina and Texas are considering waivers as well.
Others, including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, have tried to claim that keeping state tests amounts to “testing for testing sake” (see full article). This year, in particular, nothing could be farther from the truth. After all, we know that students—particularly our most vulnerable—are losing ground right now. For example, Utah’s State Board of Education reported a significant drop in the number of first graders who started the year with proficient early literacy skills. They used external, objective standardized testing to benchmark students and confirm what they suspected in the spring: COVID school shutdowns have created alarming learning delays. The data is already shaping funding priorities and districts’ curriculum decisions, and the state is planning to continue its use of the state-wide RISE summative assessments for similar reasons.
Utah should be applauded for working to preserve statewide assessment this year because, as the Urban League of Philadelphia pointed out in a letter to that state’s General Assembly, “delaying [state] assessments for a second straight year risks the loss of critical information that would highlight opportunity gaps and help schools learn and improve upon their virtual or hybrid learning systems.”
To be sure, testing in a pandemic isn’t easy. But we know that many groups, including the NWEA, TerraNova, Iowa Assessments, Advanced Placement Program, and the ACT, among others, have found ways to make accommodations for distance learners and for online testing. These accommodations will make it possible for classroom teachers and schools to get an independent widow into whether or how much learning loss students face.
At the same time, we should ensure that achievement data gathered from this unprecedented moment doesn’t negatively impact teachers and students. But the idea that it is more fair to kids to bury our heads in the sand and not consider the academic impact 2020 has had on our nation’s schoolchildren would be irresponsible.
At Partnership Schools, we believe standardized assessments are as valuable this year as they have ever been—perhaps more so. Of course, we’ll take a deep breath before we will look at student achievement data this year. But as Kentucky educator Garris Landon Stroud notes, “While the data may not be what educators and parents would like to see, it at least gives schools a starting point for addressing learning loss.”
Like school systems and charter management organizations nationwide, our network will be making decisions for many months and even years about how to deploy limited resources and when to adapt our approach to most effectively target the gaps the pandemic is causing. Those are tough decisions; we can’t imagine how much tougher they would be without data.
Of course, we know that we need more than standardized test scores to serve our students well. Indeed, it is the whole picture we draw for ourselves about students’ performance that informs our teachers’ and network’s actions. It is a rich picture that should never be reduced to a single snapshot, but one that is incomplete without that information.
But we also know that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” As educators in the midst of COVID, we are compelled to embrace two truths: the reality of where our students are, as represented in part by objective, external testing; and the great potential our students have to advance from that point—provided that we, informed by clear measures of where they are, target our support of their learning well.
Maggie Johnson is the Vice President of Academics for Partnership Schools.
Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives for Partnership Schools.