Analysis: Test Data Are Essential for Figuring Out How to Help Students — But Most States Aren’t Releasing Their Results. That Needs to Change

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Recently announced math scores declined on the 2020 National Assessment of Educational Progress assessment of long-term trends, a nationally representative sample of student progress last measured in 2012. This news broke as some states are beginning to share results from last spring’s student assessments — showing declines from 2019 scores. Taken together, these results are a stark reminder that there’s much work to be done to support students and close longstanding gaps in opportunity. But to fulfill the promise of assessments and use their results for improvement, leaders in every state must prioritize publicly sharing the data.

To say it’s been a challenging year and a half for students and schools is a vast understatement. Leaders and the public need access to all available data to support students as they move through their education and into the workforce, and to direct necessary resources where they are needed most. The detailed, disaggregated data from state assessments will help educators target assistance and resources for learners and provide families and communities with a more sophisticated understanding of what students need. Only state exams provide the comparability that allows for results that say something about learning for all students in a given state and provide a starting point for identifying what worked and how to replicate it in other places.

Publicly sharing assessment results ensures that those who are supporting students — from families and community members to educators and district leaders — have this comparable information on learning loss and gains, device access, and equitable outcomes across student groups. It also enables conversations about how to navigate next steps, resources and supports, and the public deserves transparency in how this year’s decisions affected student learning. Anecdotes will not do.

Only Washington, D.C., was granted a federal waiver to fully cancel 2021 statewide assessments. Some states were given flexibility in how they administered tests and how long the exams could be, but they still had to give them. Almost every state did so, which means every state has this data. But less than half of states have shared it publicly so far.

The data we’ve seen reveals big gaps between certain student groups. Some of the biggest state assessment declines from 2019 were reported for Black and Latino students, as well as children from low-income families and English learners. It is important to note — though not surprising — that these groups tended to have less access to in-person instruction during the 2020-21 school year. The scores on the NAEP long-term trends assessment provide evidence that these gaps were widening before the pandemic. State leaders must look closely at these crucial facts to begin to address such inequities. Indeed, without this data and the transparency of releasing it to families and communities, we could face a return to the days when inequitable outcomes are merely swept under the rug.

Thankfully, in many of the states that have released assessment data, leaders are already using this information to understand student needs and guide response efforts this year. Take Texas, which is using test data to target resources to individual students most in need of support. Or Colorado and Georgia, where officials are using assessment data to inform spending plans.

Another state taking advantage of the rich information from state assessments is Massachusetts, which announced this summer that districts would get early access to test data specifically so they could use it for planning this year.

Some leaders are looking to assessment results as a call to action to address disrupted learning. For example, Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said, “These test results give us sobering data that confirms just how hard last year was with school closures, class quarantines and remote learning. As students return to school, it is extremely clear that we must accelerate learning more than we have done historically. If we just go back to doing what we have before, we will not be successful.”

This sentiment is right on and illustrates why it’s so concerning when leaders in states like Florida say they intend to walk away from their current statewide exams. 

As we look toward recovery, it’s time to commend state leaders who are prioritizing transparency by publicly sharing the results of their statewide annual assessments — and to encourage those who haven’t yet released their results to do so immediately. Families, communities and educators need this information as they work to get learning back on track for so many students. Finding solutions that are best for students requires building trust between leaders and communities. And trust requires transparency. 

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

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