Plans to Administer ‘Nation’s Report Card’ in 2021 to Proceed Despite Concerns Over Reliability and Funding During Pandemic

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Nationally mandated reading and math tests scheduled for 2021 should proceed, the National Assessment Governing Board decided Friday. But the board acknowledged that it might be impossible to collect accurate assessment data and that Congress might not provide enough funding to give the tests under social distancing conditions.

The 12-10 vote came after considerable debate over whether the results would still be useful given the likelihood that many students won’t be in school and that flawed data could tarnish the “gold standard” reputation of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Most members of the board, which sets policies and schedules for the national tests, agreed that even with significant uncertainty over the extent of in-person learning in the spring, the assessments will provide some window into how much learning students have lost and whether gaps between groups of students have widened during the pandemic.

“I think this is one of the most important NAEPs that will ever be done,” Haley Barbour, former governor of Mississippi and chair of the governing board, said during the livestreamed session. “It will be testing something that hopefully isn’t going to be common in the future of our schools.”

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, added that if the tests were delayed until 2022, it would be hard for the U.S. Department of Education to “resist” requests for waivers from states for spring assessments. So far, Georgia has asked for a waiver, but U.S. Assistant Education Secretary James Blew told reporters recently that such requests were premature and the department would likely turn them down.

Andrew Ho, a professor at Harvard University, was among those opposed to moving forward with the assessments, which he said are only useful when they answer “specific questions accurately.” He said he didn’t want to keep spending money on something that could be viewed as a “symbolic political gesture.”

The governing board made its decision on math and reading after gathering input from state and district leaders and listening Thursday to a panel of health experts. But they still don’t know whether Congress will approve the National Center for Education Statistics’ request for an additional $65 million to conduct the tests in smaller groups and to hire and train 7,000 testing administrators — 4,000 more than normally needed.

Peggy Carr, associate commissioner at NCES, told the members that the agency would have to stop spending money in December in order to still have enough to conduct the assessment in 2022 if 2021 becomes impossible.

Congress mandates that fourth- and eighth-graders take the reading and math assessments every two years, and states are required to participate in order to receive federal Title I funds for schools serving low-income students. Policymakers often use the results to determine whether or not U.S. schools are improving and to compare results between states.

The board made a less controversial decision to delay until 2022 voluntary civics and U.S. history tests for eighth-graders. The long-term trend assessment for 17-year-olds, originally scheduled for March this year, will also be scheduled for 2022.

‘Parental reluctance’

Thursday’s session was the first time in its 30-year history that the governing board has consulted public health experts in preparation for an assessment, Barbour said. The question-and-answer session offered insight into not just planning for the assessments but reopening schools in general.

“Parental reluctance” will determine whether there are enough students to test in person, said Annette Campbell Anderson, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University who is leading work on a state-by-state school reopening tracker. She added that parents likely need to see a continuing decline in transmission rates between now and the end of the year to “feel comfortable about returning.”

Monitoring states’ “living and breathing” reopening plan documents, she said 22 states have addressed all 12 categories in the tracker, but there is still wide variation about issues like transportation, nutrition, student privacy and the degree of choice teachers have over returning to the classroom or working remotely.

One glaring inconsistency, Anderson said, is how administrators plan to respond if someone in school becomes infected after schools open. “All the states say something very different about what to do if there is a case,” she said.

Dr. Teena Chopra, an infectious disease specialist at Wayne State University, said if a student in a small cohort tests positive, all of the students in that cohort would need to stay home and get tested. If someone outside of that group tests positive, then the school would need to close.

She added that in addition to face masks and potentially plastic shields for teachers, Wayne State is actually recommending more conservative distances of 10 feet between students at the university. Most guidance for schools recommends six feet.

Carr told the board that under normal conditions, students would take the test in groups of 25, but that it was currently planning for groups of 10.

But depending on classroom size, even that might be too many. “We need to acknowledge that the physical plant of many of our schools would make 10 feet impossible,” said Dr. Nathaniel Beers, president of HSC Health Care System in Washington, D.C., and a former official with District of Columbia Public Schools.

Experts, including Chopra, have stressed that as long as the disease is still spreading within the community, schools should remain closed. Based on that criterion, between 22 and 33 states should keep schools closed, Beers said. Plus, the testing window would fall in the middle of flu season. “That is going to throw everything into chaos again,” he said.

Results ‘with an asterisk’

Carr has stressed that results would still be valuable and would likely be the only nationally representative sample with comparisons across states for the 2020-21 school year.

The agency is also planning to add questions to the math and reading assessments that would provide more context for the results — on topics such as technology use and access, resources for instruction, how instruction was organized and teacher preparation for distance learning.

The most recent results, released last October, showed a decline in reading for both grades and overall performance in math relatively flat for the past decade. Recent trends also show that while top-performing students in some subject areas have continued to improve, performance has dipped for those scoring at the bottom of the scale.

Some who follow testing trends, such as Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, have linked the lack of growth in scores to the Great Recession’s impact on family income and school budgets. Now with another recession, a pandemic and the uneven impact of school closures on students’ learning, there’s been strong interest in having some barometer of student learning.

At a June 29 meeting, Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, indicated that state superintendents were divided on whether testing in 2021 should go forward. Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, suggested that state and district leaders were leaning toward postponing, and Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, also a member of the governing board, made that clear Friday, saying that there was no certainty “we wouldn’t get anything more than flawed information.”

Stephen Pruitt, president of the 16-state Southern Regional Education Board, said the organization wasn’t taking a position, but he noted that “a more immediate need is for teachers to have classroom-level tools they can use to quickly assess students’ skills and learning, so they can lift each student to grade-level or beyond.”

If NCES determines at the end of the year that it’s not feasible to go forward with the tests, Petrilli and others don’t think there will be long-term negative consequences. He said he’s long thought testing students in reading and math every two years was unnecessary.

“At a national or state level, we just don’t see changes that frequently,” he said, “and it sucks up a lot of money that could be used to test other subjects more frequently, or could be used to do state-by-state testing in 12th grade.” He added that because student participation in the assessments might be so low, “any results would come with an asterisk.”

‘Find out where children are’

But skipping a second year of assessment at the state level — after states were already exempted from testing this past spring — is another issue, according to state education officials. On July 20, the CCSSO issued a statement emphasizing that educators, policymakers and parents still need assessment data to better understand the impact of the school closures on students.

“We need to be hopeful that we will be able to administer our statewide assessments,” said Mississippi State Superintendent Carey Wright. “We have got to find out where children are in order to know where to take them. I would hate for us to go yet another year without some feel for what’s happening across the state.” And on Monday, Chiefs for Change, another superintendents organization, issued a statement agreeing that NAEP should continue as planned and that it’s too soon to call for a “wholesale suspension” of state testing.

If students aren’t in school, however, is there any way to gather accurate assessment data? That would be tough, said Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment. He called efforts to assess students remotely “not pretty” and said, “I have to question whether we’re going to get something of value.” The fact that the College Board canceled plans to administer the SAT remotely, he added, suggests that such methods are not yet reliable in K-12.

Assessment experts, he said, would be comfortable with bringing small groups of students into a building and assessing a sample of them, but he said teachers, parents and students would still want individual results.

In a recent article, Marion and co-author Ajit Gopalakrishnan suggested that states move ahead with regularly scheduled assessments but not make those results the centerpiece of state accountability systems — such as school grades and rating systems — as they usually are. They call instead for measuring how well schools handle health and safety precautions, respond to students’ social-emotional needs and provide high-quality instruction, whether in person or remote.

“The question is not whether we can calculate accountability results in 2021 in ways similar to before COVID. Some argue we can,” they wrote. “We think the important question is whether we should calculate accountability results in 2021 in ways similar to before COVID. Our answer is unequivocally no.”

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