Analysis: Spring Exams Are the Best Shot State Leaders Have at Knowing What’s Happening With Their Students

Education news this year could give you whiplash. Think of all the news stories we’ve seen: Students are learning in person, online or hybrid, depending on the day of the week. Some enrolled and engaged, but too many haven’t and can’t be found. Some have internet access and devices; many don’t. The truth is, we don’t know what happened in 2020 for students. But we have one shot at getting a comparable data point that will say something about learning for all students within a state. And that is to administer spring assessments.

As 2021 begins, we can’t make assumptions about what students have learned this school year. Education leaders and teachers, of course, have interacted with students and watched them through computer screens for many months — but we won’t truly know what happened and where learning gaps exist without statewide exams. These assessments provide state leaders and educators with the only comparable information about how students in their state performed in math and reading. And with news that the National Assessment of Educational Progress has been canceled, statewide tests are even more important. Without them, policy and education leaders will be reduced to guessing about learning loss and gains, device access and equitable outcomes for students in their state.

Estimates and anecdotes are not enough.

The public needs information, however imperfect, about what students learned last year. State and district leaders should use assessment data in conjunction with all the other information they have, including local exam results and which students have access to a device and high-speed internet. Fortunately, 19 states have already publicly committed to administering 2021 assessments. But for those that haven’t, the window for state leaders to move forward in a manner that meets the moment is closing. Those leaders must keep the following three things top of mind:

1 Tests should be easy to administer and easy to take 

When I worked in Baltimore City Public Schools, we had a policy never to put students in a position to be potentially harmed while getting to school in inclement weather. If a child was freezing in the ice and snow at a bus stop because the bus got stuck in ice, we had failed. That seems more than obvious — but it’s how leaders should be thinking about assessments this year. Tests shouldn’t be burdensome for educators to administer, for parents to manage or for students to take.

Schools and students have all had different experiences this year — some in person, some online — and how students are assessed must reflect how they have been learning. Leaders should focus on a practical, common-sense approach to administering these tests and what they look like.

Pivoting isn’t easy, but it is necessary and it can be done. For example, last spring, the College Board worked to make Advanced Placement exams virtual in a matter of weeks and removed proctoring burdens by making tests open-book. It was not perfect, but in short order, students and educators were provided with good comparable information about content mastery.

Just because tests have always looked a certain way doesn’t mean that’s what they should look like this year. Assessments can be what states need them to be now. Maybe that means pushing back the testing window. Maybe that means changing the format. The burden is on states and assessment vendors to be thinking about how to most easily do this for students and teachers. And that’s something state leaders need to pursue now.

2 Assessment data provides an evidence base for leaders to decide next steps

As someone who led assessment and accountability for both Baltimore and New York City public schools, I understand the value of valid and reliable data for decisionmaking. But this year, the priority cannot be a perfect data set. Given the enrollment and engagement information, and the record numbers of students who haven’t been able to attend school regularly because of a lack of technology, we likely can’t test everyone. But districts and states should have a data point for each student — either a test score or a specific reason why the student didn’t take the test (e.g., lack of internet). Taken together, this information provides critical insights to state and local leaders about what happened, where, and to whom.

At its heart, this is an equity issue. Leaders must have comparable data to begin planning for the 2021–22 school year, and to engage in conversations with advocates about next steps, resources, and supports. And the public deserves transparent information about the decisions made this year. We’ll have none of this if states don’t administer the test at all.

3 This is a moment to pause on releasing school ratings

Coming from someone who has dedicated her career to assessment and accountability, this is really hard to say — but that’s how I know it’s the right thing to do. There’s no doubt the 2020–21 school year will have an asterisk beside it. As a country, we need to capture what we know about students and their experiences during this most disruptive time in the history of education. But information gleaned from assessments in the spring must be used smartly — and that means that now may be the moment to take the high stakes out of publicly reporting school ratings this year.

This is not the moment to publicly rate school performance. Rather, in this unpredictable year, assessment results — including data on the reasons students weren’t assessed — should be used to target resources and support, not make decisions about individual schools.

This year has been anything but ordinary, and that means assessments won’t be, either. Even under the best of circumstances, administering tests is a challenge, and it will be even more complex this school year. But this is hard work worth doing. Leaders must be responsible about how they move forward and make assessments happen in a way that’s not burdensome for students and teachers. It’s time for state exams, and how they are used, to change to meet the moment. Without summative assessments, leaders will be leaving themselves — and students — in the dark.

Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger is president and CEO of the Data Quality Campaign.

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