COVID-19 has made it extremely challenging for many schools across the country to properly administer state assessments. School districts have to consider the public health challenges of safely testing students, the feasibility of virtual testing, and the social and emotional needs of students, families and teachers being asked to prepare for and take tests during a pandemic.
There certainly were problems with state assessments that existed long before COVID-19 as well. In Texas, for example, failures and questionable results from the state’s assessment (STAAR) have steadily moved educational stakeholders to reexamine both the tests themselves and the high-stakes penalties tied to them for students and schools. And those most harmed are students of color and students from families with limited incomes.
This past year has led many to rethink old habits and operations. Schools are seeing new ways to provide student support and to assess mastery. Now is the time to explore assessment challenges and research-based strategies that enable schools to accurately measure learning and identify where students need support. Recent federal guidance and relief funding laws emphasize that addressing lost instructional time due to COVID-19 (“learning loss”) must ensure accurate and valid data collection, particularly data about how historically marginalized student groups are faring in their schools.
While often spoken in the same breath, assessment and accountability are two different things. Assessment guides instruction, informs school improvement and helps to identify student support needs. Accountability should facilitate community oversight with disaggregated data; input factors, like fair funding; opportunity-to-learn metrics, such as social-emotional learning; and school climate and student engagement.
Too often, students and families are seen as passive consumers of data with no follow-up or mechanism for meaningful input. If we are serious about redefining assessment systems, schools should engage students and families in new ways.
Neither assessment nor accountability should use test scores for high-stakes decisions, such as diploma denial, in-grade retention or state takeovers. And neither should be used to excuse school district poor performance because of the characteristics of the community it serves, such as low-wealth areas and communities of color (Robledo Montecel, 2019).
There are a number of short-term strategies that states and school districts can adopt to move away from harmful and ineffective assessment and accountability systems right now:
- Use tests for diagnostic purposes to determine how students are learning and being supported by their schools. These assessments should not be tied to high-stakes consequences, such as grade retention or for determining school district ratings in state accountability systems.
- Expand the use of formative assessment methods, which include tests, assignments and projects that measure over time how students are learning content and where they need additional support.
- Collect additional data that are complementary to diagnostic assessments and can help to determine how schools are doing in educating their students (Latham Sikes, 2020). Such data include information about digital literacy and access and student engagement. Recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Education requires the collection of chronic absenteeism data and technology access as a condition of granting certain waivers to state assessment reporting (Rosenblum, 2021).
In addition to the immediate responses above, states should engage in long-term reforms, beginning by performing independent studies concerning their assessment systems. These studies should be commissioned by states with independent oversight by a panel of education stakeholders, including education advocates, community members, families, recent graduates and researchers.
Such studies should examine the impacts of assessments on teaching and learning over time. Suggested research questions include: (a) Have the tests accurately measured education outcomes? (b) What have been the least effective practices for measuring content learning? (c) What have been the best practices for measuring content learning? (d) What are the causes of performance plateaus in standardized tests? (Rothman, 2017) and (e) What dynamics across all state assessment tests lead to strong early results that drop off in the higher grades?
Even as states perform these evaluations, they can look to well-established research on avoiding harmful impacts of testing systems that hurt students and the strategies to accurately measure achievement. High-stakes accountability systems have a negative impact on pedagogy that is illustrated by the underperformance of students of color on other standardized assessments (Valenzuela, 2005).
To further two decades of work on this issue, an independent committee can propose answers, suggestions and topics for further research on the following foundational questions:
- What does a meaningful assessment look like?
- What are the guiding principles that effective assessment must embody?
- How is equity ensured?
- How do we maintain the integrity of asset-based ideas that continue to focus change in educational practices rather than blaming students’ socioeconomic conditions?
- What mechanisms must be in place that provide increased support for underperforming schools?
- What role do assessments play in a reimagined 21st century accountability systems that concentrate and measure the following indicators?
- College access and success for all students,
- Culturally sustaining educational practices that include ethnic studies, and
- Critical thinking skills that include 21st century media literacies.
Community-led Assessment Systems
The next decade will surely bring significant changes to accountability and assessments that could lead to a new era in school reforms. It is imperative to move forcefully but fortified with the lessons from our past.
One of the most important and untapped assets at our disposal is our families and communities. School districts should create systems that enable students and families to provide regular feedback concerning local educational policies, programs and practices.
Too often, students and families are seen as passive consumers of data with no follow-up or mechanism for meaningful input. If we are serious about redefining assessment systems, schools should engage students and families in new ways, including to identify the culturally-sustaining practices and assessment tools that would best help students connect to their schools and engage in their coursework. It is through this community-led approach to teaching and learning that we can best support students and ensure schools are centers of learning and growth rather than test-prep machines.
Epstein, E., & Madrigal, T. (Fall 2020). Shooting for the STAAR: An Authentic Assessment Pilot Proposal to Replace Inequitable High-Stakes Accountability. Texas Center for Education Policy, University of Texas at Austin.
Latham Sikes, C. (December 10, 2020). Effective School Assessments and Accountability that Does not Hurt Students. Learning Goes On.
Robledo Montecel, M. (January 27, 2019). No place for complacency in educating poor children. San Antonio Express-News.
Rosenblum, I. (February 22, 2021). Letter to Chief State School Officers, RE: Assessment, accountability, and reporting requirements. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
Rothman, R. (October 25, 2017). What’s Behind the Plateau in Test Scores? Education Week.
Valenzuela, A. (Ed). (2005). Leaving Children Behind: How “Texas-style” Accountability Fails Latino Youth. State University of New York Press.
Chloe Latham Sikes, Ph.D., is IDRA’s Deputy Director of Policy. Hector Bojorquez is IDRA’s Director of Operations. Morgan Craven, J.D., is the IDRA National Director of Policy. Comments and questions may be directed to them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively.
[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2021 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]