Schools, Teachers & Parents Need Rapid State Test Results. Why Are They So Slow?

Aldeman: In dozens of states, spring English and math scores don't come out until fall. A few districts are trying to speed things up.

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High-quality but slow, or fast and cheap? 

During the depths of the pandemic, rapid at-home COVID tests were often more useful than the slightly more accurate but much slower PCR tests. 

People needed the at-home tests’ quicker results because they were trying to make immediate decisions. Should they go to work? Was it safe to see family? The slower process of scheduling a PCR test, going in-person to take it and then waiting days for results just didn’t work.

Education is suffering the same problems with tests of academic performance. The federal government requires states to test students in reading and math in grades 3 to 8 and at least once in high school. But in fulfilling that mandate, states have not paid enough attention to the speed at which they deliver the results. 

Consider the graph below, showing the dates at which states released the scores from their spring 2022 assessments. School start dates vary widely across the country, but only five states announced results by the end of July. Nine states released their scores in August. That leaves 36 states and the District of Columbia, which announced their results in September or later. This year, as of the end of August, 15 states and the District of Columbia had released the scores from their spring 2022 tests; the rest were still processing theirs.

In tracking all these down, I was limited to the date on which states released their official results to the public. A handful of states share preliminary data with parents and educators in advance. However, that’s far from standard practice. More typically, the results reach parents only after trickling down through district bureaucracies. That game of telephone takes time, and it dilutes the message the tests might otherwise send about student performance. 

What will it take to change this dynamic? 

So far in 2023, states are following a pattern pretty similar to last year’s. As of late August, 18 states and the District of Columbia had released the results from their spring tests; the rest were still processing theirs. 

As with the debate over PCR versus at-home COVID tests, the assessment challenges in education are political, not technical. From a technical standpoint, it’s possible to deliver high-quality assessment results, at scale, much faster than what states are doing right now. For example, students who take the ACTSATGRE and AP tests can expect their results online within about two weeks. 

So why do state test results take so much longer? The delays seem to come down to a few reasons. One, some state exams go beyond bubble tests to feature essays or other open-response questions that take longer to score. But that still doesn’t explain the gap. The makers of the ACT and SAT warn, for example, that results may take another few days or up to two weeks to score written test items.

Two, states are afraid of making mistakes. They are reluctant to release results — even preliminary ones — before they are confident they got everything 100% correct. That’s a reasonable impulse, but again, the private-sector tests serve as a counterpoint. Those exams actually have high stakes for the students taking them, unlike most state tests. There are some high-profile examples of high stakes for state tests, such as third-grade reading retention policies, but in practice, those places tend to release their results faster. If anything, attaching stakes seems to speed things up. 

The search for perfection also leads to a third problem — too many checkpoints. Some states are so concerned about getting everything right that they will let districts review their results privately before the results are made public. Again, that might be understandable in some circumstances, but it adds more time. 

There are signs this dynamic is changing. District leaders are starting to make the timing argument. In Missouri, for example, 20 districts have banded together to create their own accountability system based on quicker, faster tests like the NWEA Map and i-Ready. These districts will still be required to take the federally mandated state tests, but the districts hope to provide a model for the rest of the state. Their vision relies on quicker, faster progress measures focused on student growth in grades 3 to 8, combined with competency-based assessments and other meaningful career-readiness indicators for high school students. 

Some states are also rethinking their assessment systems in the push for faster testing data that could better inform instruction. Ohio legislators this year passed a requirement that schools provide results to parents no later than June 30. And states like Florida, Louisiana, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have all shifted or are in the process of adopting versions of “through-year” assessments that test kids at multiple points in time during the school year. Montana just got federal approval to do something similar. The mechanics of each state’s test vary, but the goal with all these models is to lessen the focus on the end-of-year test while giving more immediate feedback to educators and parents on individual student progress. 

The feds could also put their thumbs on the scale in favor of speed. After all, Congress set the federal testing mandate, and the law requires states to provide the results to parents, teachers and school leaders “as soon as is practicable after the assessment is given.” The law doesn’t define what that means, but congressional leaders could set a time limit. 

Policymakers have long touted the multiple potential purposes for state tests. Parents could see the results and sign their child up for tutoring, enroll them in summer classes or find a new school. Teachers could shift their teaching practices. School leaders could use the results to target schoolwide challenges or shift classroom assignments. 

But these decisions all depend on having good information at the right time. And right now, states are missing that window. They are too slow in getting test results back into the hands of the people who need them.

Disclosure: The author is a consultant for NWEA, maker of the MAP Growth interim assessments.

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