It’s Time to Advance – Not End – Assessment

By Jocelyn Pickford -

As COVID-19 continues to impact students, teachers, families, colleges, and universities across the country, HCM Strategists is working to provide essential thought leadership on the range of issues in the field of education.

Our expert policy staff has launched a new series to identify emerging education policy ideas and practices aimed at addressing COVID-19. Stay tuned for more in HCM’s new series addressing COVID-19 concerns in education, and use #EdAfterCOVID19 to join the conversation on social media. Read more

Since the onset of the global pandemic necessitated changes to nearly every element of schooling, the education community has started rethinking norms across the board. This has resulted in a lot of innovation and the potential to truly revolutionize student learning for the better.

Assessments are a critical part of this revolution.

Yes, you read that right. I know this statement will not win me any popularity contests in most education circles. However, I state it anyway for one reason: equity.

The most recent research by the national non-profit Learning Heroes shows that parents will show up differently this fall, after having a front row seat to their child’s learning at home. While 68% of White parents want to know what material their child is missing and how schools plan to address that material, the percentage for African American and Hispanic parents is even higher at 75%. Formative and summative assessments offer one piece of this vital information.

The problem with the assessment conversation is that it has become so polarized and political that we have lost sight of the original intent of measuring what students know. This information helps to ensure each individual child has the skills to advance and to ensure the public education system serves all children equitably. While state tests are not the only measure for this important purpose, the information they yield each year offers consistent and comparable data to help us understand how students, schools and districts are faring. As states face important decisions about resource allocations in an increasingly limited budget environment, leaders at all levels need data to drive these decisions or we risk exacerbating gaps.

Even in these challenging times, we have an opportunity to refocus and even reimagine how assessment works in our schools. With the onset of COVID-19, the federal government rightly waived the annual requirement for state testing for the spring of 2020. With students sent home overnight and most schools shuttered for the rest of the school year, there is no question that annual testing would not have been productive. And so, for the first time in decades, the heat has been taken out of the debate about accountability.

We have some time to think carefully about the types of measures we need, but one mistake we cannot make is eliminating measures altogether in the absence of a better plan. Here are three places to start:

  1. Press pause on the rush to a federal waiver from testing requirements in 2021. With so many unknowns about the coming school year, it is too soon to waive state assessments, as Georgia and Michigan are already seeking to do. As David Mansouri from Tennessee SCORE recently stated, “Educators use assessment data to inform instruction. Losing multiple years of data can intensify gaps in learning and magnify equity challenges across the state.” Rather than rushing into another waiver, we should live through the first few months of the year, take stock of the health and education realities in each state and then move forward. It may be possible to administer some form of assessment with no stakes attached – and it may not. Like so many elements of life in the COVID era, we simply don’t have enough information yet to know, and in this case, we have more time to make a decision.
  2. Enable districts to use no-stakes diagnostic tools to gauge student starting points upon return to school. A May survey by the Collaborative for Student Success asked teachers, administrators, policymakers and advocates what it will take to keep students on track with learning and found some areas of common agreement to help inform state and district actions. Tellingly, the majority of all these groups agree that some no-stakes form of diagnostic assessment is critical to ensure students, educators and families understand where support is needed when kids return to school. Fortunately, these kinds of assessments have been administered for many years in classrooms across the country as a regular component of instruction. States like Florida, Tennessee and Texas are subsidizing these tools for districts and families, while advocates in other states, like Colorado, are pushing for the same. This approach helps to ensure assessments are high-quality and that districts and schools have equitable access to use these tools to identify gaps and drive support.
  3. Fast forward the evolution of innovative assessments. In the new normal of the COVID era, we are seeing more options as we consider the best and most equitable ways to assess student learning. NWEA, the non-profit provider of one widely used diagnostic assessment suite, has just announced partnerships with Khan Academy and Newsela to pair tailored instructional resources with individual student results. This is the type of innovation that puts assessment back where it belongs in the education conversation – in the hands of educators and families.
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