'A lot of anxiety': Schools may face challenge of high-stakes standardized tests amid pandemic

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When schools in Columbus, Ohio, opened last fall for the state’s third grade reading exam, just over a third of students showed up. The rest stayed home, for reasons district leaders can only guess.

Some parents may have worried their child would contract the coronavirus, despite the district’s safety protocols. Others may have lacked the time or transportation to get their child to school. And some parents might have figured it wasn’t worth the effort or risk, since the state temporarily waived a requirement that students pass the test to advance to the fourth grade, said Machelle Kline, the district’s chief accountability officer.

The Columbus district’s experience offers a preview of the challenges ahead, as schools nationwide prepare for a new round of high-stakes standardized testing —mostly in person — which the federal government is requiring this spring following a one-year reprieve.

Some experts worry that many students will stay home and miss the tests, and that those who do turn up will be the children with the most education support at home, who are likely to perform well. If that happens, the testing data will be skewed and could hamper states’ efforts to allocate funding where the Covid-19 slide has been steepest.

“Bad data is worse than no data, because people will still make decisions based on bad data,” said Scott Marion, executive director of the nonprofit National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment.

Some state leaders are holding on to the faint hope that President Joe Biden will suspend the exams for a second year. Many others are seeking state and federal permission to change how this year’s scores are used for accountability, arguing that it would be unfair to punish schools, teachers or students for drops in scores due to the pandemic.

“We’d like to have data, but not have consequences tied to the data,” said Chris Woolard, senior executive director for performance and impact at the Ohio Department of Education.

Data reliability concerns aside, opponents argue that standardized testing during a pandemic will add to the stress students and teachers are under and cut into this year’s already constrained instructional time. They say schools already have plenty of evidence on which students have suffered the most under remote learning: low-income students and students of color.

Do schools need data or ‘grace’?

Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, states are required to test every student in grades three through eight annually, as well as once in high school, and to separate scores by race, income, English language proficiency and special education status. States use the results to identify schools in need of improvement and investment.

When the pandemic shut down schools last March, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave states waivers from the law’s annual testing and accountability requirements.

Several states, including Georgia, Michigan, New York and South Carolina, have requested the agency’s permission to skip standardized testing again this year.

“It’s a lot of anxiety and stress in a year that has already had an unprecedented amount of stress,” said Ryan Brown, chief communications officer for the South Carolina Department of Education, which wants to substitute a series of lower-stakes interim assessments for a big end-of-year one.

But DeVos made clear in a September letter to state school chiefs that they shouldn’t expect another blanket waiver this year. Instead, she offered guidance on how they might amend their accountability plans to account for coronavirus-related disruptions and missing data.

Now that Miguel Cardona is likely to take over the federal Education Department, many state leaders hope the department will waive the requirement that states use test scores to rate schools and districts, or even cancel the tests altogether — though most concede that’s unlikely.

That’s in part because prominent civil rights groups and congressional Democrats have urged the department not to abandon standardized testing this year.

“If we do not measure the opportunity gaps being exacerbated during Covid-19, we risk losing a generation of young people,” a dozen education, civil rights and disability advocates warned in a November letter to the department.

In his Senate confirmation hearing in early February, Cardona told lawmakers that states should have a say over whether assessments are tied to accountability measures.

Already, several states have said they won’t include test scores in teacher evaluation systems or won’t require students to pass a test to advance a grade or graduate. Some, like Mississippi, have done away with A-F letter grades for schools this year.

“I just feel this needs to be a year of grace for districts and teachers and students,” said Carey Wright, Mississippi’s superintendent of education.

What to do about remote learners

With close to 40 percent of students still attending school virtually, the biggest challenge confronting states as they head into standardized test season will be figuring out whether — and how — to test remote learners.

Some standardized test-makers claim their exams can be taken remotely, provided that students have approved devices and access to the internet.

But nearly a year after districts and nonprofits began distributing laptops and hotspots, student access remains uneven. In a recent survey by Education Week, more than a fifth of households said they still lack reliable access to a computer or other digital device, and nearly a quarter said they don’t have dependable internet.

There is also the problem of test security. Though the standardized test-makers say teachers and staff can proctor tests remotely, many schools aren’t set up to do so.

And based on results from last fall, when students took lower-stakes standardized tests at home, remote proctoring might not work.

Two of the top test-makers, NWEA and Renaissance, discovered that some younger learners performed significantly better when they took the test at home — a finding that hints at parental help. In Columbus, school leaders held a talk for parents about the purposes of diagnostic testing — to provide a snapshot of a student’s independent skills so that teachers can give them appropriate work — after a few kindergartners who could barely pick out words tested at a third- or fourth-grade level, Kline said.

Given these challenges, few states are planning to test students remotely, according to Scott Norton, deputy executive director of programs at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Neediest students may not take tests

There are troubling signs that many students aren’t taking the interim assessments districts use to identify struggling learners, and state leaders worry the same will be true for the higher stakes standardized tests this spring. Nationally, 1 in 4 students attending schools that administered the NWEA MAP Growth assessment in fall 2019 and fall 2020 did not take the test in 2020, an analysis by the test-maker found.

The analysis found higher rates of attrition among Black and Hispanic students, students with lower academic achievement and students from schools with higher concentrations of low-income students.

Failing to account for such participation gaps could lead districts to “underestimate the magnitude of achievement decline,” potentially resulting in “the under-provision of support and services to the neediest students,” the authors warn.

Other studies suggest the missing students are more likely to be attending school online. In December, nearly three-quarters of urban school districts — which disproportionately enroll low-income students and students of color — were still fully remote, compared to only a third of suburban districts, according to The Center on Reinventing Public Education.

If nothing else, state leaders hope the Biden administration will offer a break from a requirement that they test 95 percent of their students.

“I don’t think there’s a state in the nation that will be able to have a 95 percent participation rate this year,” said Wright, the Mississippi superintendent.