Analysis: It’s Tempting to Scrap Testing, but We Need Data to Measure Student Progress. It’s Time for a Fresh Approach

When COVID-19 forced the emergency shutdown of America’s school buildings, the U.S. Department of Education waived all state testing requirements for the 2019-20 academic year. This decision brought a swift end not only to two decades of federally mandated annual testing in reading and math, but also to the era of accountability-centered education reform.

While it would be tempting in this crisis to simply focus on emergency funding, without a parallel investment in data collection, parents, students and teachers will be setting out on a difficult journey with no way to know if they are headed in the right direction or how close they are to their destination. At the same time, we should resist the natural impulse to simply restore the measurement and accountability systems of the past. We need a fresh approach to measuring student progress.

That means breaking free of a zero-sum mindset in which data was misused to pit schools against schools, teachers against teachers and students against students. This approach reinforced a worldview based on scarcity, whereby some people had to lose so others could win, and which discouraged risk-taking, experimentation and a holistic approach to student learning.

Instead, as we suggest in our new report, Measure Everything, what’s needed is a new philosophy that is family-centered and helps make learning visible wherever and whenever it is happening. By investing in a variety of measurement tools — and the connections between them — we can gain the insight we need to direct emergency funding to its greatest use and provide families, students and teachers with the real-time information they need to thrive.

First, we should adapt the best elements of annual state assessments to a more focused and modest mission. That means resisting calls to cancel these tests by standing alongside the parents and community leaders who rightly recognize the important role these tests play in supporting transparency for results and protecting vulnerable students.

At the same time, we should take this opportunity to right-size the role these state assessments play in our education system. Checking for student literacy and numeracy is important particularly as school and district leaders look to allocate their resources effectively and intervene on behalf of kids who’ve fallen behind. But annual tests were never designed to provide the kind of real-time feedback needed to improve teaching or student learning as it happens. Nor were they ever going to help measure all the things parents and other civic actors believe our children should know, like how to be kind, respected or a contributing member of a community. We should keep the ritual of annual assessments so schools don’t become black boxes and because — as many parents across the 50CAN network have shared — the information matters a great deal to them. But now is the time to do better.

Second, we should embrace data collection opportunities that didn’t exist 20 years ago, when state assessment systems were first put in place. New and increased adoption of technology provide data that can be used to understand, in real time, how well students master content not only in core academic subjects like math but in everything else, from foreign languages to music to computer programing. Platforms like Zearn have given us vital information on student performance, almost in real time, and the data have proved to be a critical window into the challenges students have faced in a disrupted school year.

Moreover, in an environment where learning happens everywhere, by necessity, capturing and organizing this information must become a much higher priority. We will need to invest in student portals that can hold all data safely and securely while helping children and their families monitor their progress. We also need to rethink how we assign credit and how students’ mastery of skills and knowledge can count for both career and college tracks. For example, if a student can make progress on learning computer programming through an app, there should be a way to ensure that those results count in school and beyond.

Finally, we need to rethink ways in which education data help policymakers and the public better understand what actually works for kids. Far too often, the best answer existing research can provide is “It depends.” That’s because, in a lot of education information collection, high-quality research is an afterthought. By including research within emergency funding initiatives, it is possible to dramatically expand the information available to make better decisions for our kids.

That means establishing education research task forces in collaboration with local universities; designing the funding for emergency programs to make it possible to measure their impact with randomized controlled trials, by separating treatment groups from control groups; and setting aside 1 percent of all education funding for research.

By making emergency investments in data collection, high-quality research and the systems needed to bring all this information together in one place, we will give ourselves the best chance to be flexible, adaptable and innovative as we work to meet the needs of students in this new era.

Derrell Bradford is the executive director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now (NYCAN).

Marc Porter Magee is the founder and CEO of 50CAN.

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