Parents Need to Know About Student Progress. Most State Data Comes out Too Late

Cowen: Dashboard gives insight into test results from 42 states and D.C. It's a good start — but more needs to be done.

This is a photo of United States Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona.
Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona. (Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

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When the U.S. Department of Education released guidance on statewide assessment systems just before Thanksgiving, it was a reminder that the federal government has an important role 

in ensuring parents, communities and the broader public have accurate information about the academic progress of K-12 students. But getting this information into the hands of parents has been tricky, as the data has been hard to find and even harder to understand.

Four years ago, my organization launched Assessment HQ to provide a simple and easy way to access statewide academic assessment data from across the country, as well as make it easier to stay up to date on changes across the K-12 testing landscape. Our most recent update encompasses 42 states and Washington, D.C., which have released assessment results for the 2022-23 school year.

This level of transparency is a critical first step in ensuring parents have a window into how well school systems are serving their children, as well as insight into achievement gaps, areas for needed investment and successful efforts. Too often, results from statewide tests are buried on confusing and outdated state education department websites or delivered in formats that don’t readily help parents identify gaps in their child’s learning. Collecting and displaying all available data from across states and in an easy-to-read format helps to address this challenge.

Assessment HQ also provides a snapshot of state compliance with federal reporting requirements (as measured by the Every Student Succeeds Act) to provide participation data for all students and student groups — an important element of full transparency. Of those that have released data, 26 are fully compliant with federal law. This information, while seemingly wonky, allows anyone exploring state student assessment data to understand the extent to which their state’s report is accurate, reliable and inclusive of all students. 

Along with compliance, accessibility to statewide assessment data is critical to ensuring that decisions and policies impacting young people are grounded in real evidence and results, as well as keeping families adequately informed of student progress. Equipping parents with information enables them to make the important, necessary decisions about their child’s education — such as enrolling in summer school or tutoring if their students are below grade level.

In the guidance letter, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona describes how his office plans on supporting and incentivizing states to pilot and adopt new approaches to assessment that may provide better information to parents on how their children are progressing toward grade-level standards. Cardona is right that current assessment systems could be improved upon, but he should also recognize that many complaints about standardized exams have nothing to do with the tests themselves.

For example, when looking at results across the country, it is immediately clear that the effective reporting and use of data is uneven, at best, with most states releasing results months after tests are administered. Indeed, reporting is generally too slow to be useful — an issue of timing rather than testing. 

This time lag has a huge effect on parents. Newly released data from a poll conducted by Gallup and nonprofit Learning Heroes finds that almost 9 out of 10 parents believe their child is performing at grade level — a perception that unfortunately does not meet reality, as statewide assessments show that far fewer students are on track. Having access to student assessment data earlier expands the options for parents and educators if a student is struggling. 

That’s why I’m encouraged by actions taken in states like Ohio, where the state legislature now requires that the results of annual statewide assessments be released no later than June 30.

With the federal government calling for states to pursue more innovation in testing, it’s critical that elected and appointed education leaders — from the federal Education Department to state legislators to district superintendents — remain clear-eyed and transparent about which aspects of K-12 state assessment systems must be preserved to ensure schools can identify and meet students needs — and which must be improved upon.

Ensuring that parents, teachers and education leaders have accurate, timely information about learning is the first critical step in empowering data-driven decisions on behalf of students. In encouraging testing innovation, the federal government must make sure that states focus on strengthening the aspects of K-12 testing that work, like accurate measurement of student achievement, while acknowledging and tackling issues like slow reporting and the lack of guidance for educators and families.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies and Walton Family Foundation provide financial support to the Collaborative for Student Success and The 74.

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