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Looking Forward: Tests and Equity in Today's Schools

Recommendations for policy makers, district leaders, and educators will help maximize the power of tests to support all children through and beyond this school year.

Article by Anne Wicks September 15, 2020 //   7 minute read

Tests have great meaning for the students and adults in the education system.  Technocratic language about tests does not — especially this school year.

As our experts detail, high quality assessments are essential to strong teaching and learning and to accountability. Testing helps us determine which students are on track and, importantly, who is falling behind and needs additional support.  This is true in a normal school year.  It is ever more critical this year, given the massive disruptions to schooling, and the compounded impacts of that disruption for our nation’s most vulnerable young people.

The following recommendations for policy makers, district leaders, and educators will help maximize the power of tests to support all children through and beyond this school year.

Use State Exams and Stay the Course with NAEP

State standardized exams and the NAEP tests (National Assessment of Education Progress) help stakeholders and policy makers understand if kids are on track  and where they are falling behind.  Policy makers and leaders can make informed decisions about allocating resources and support only by understanding the academic progress of students around their state.  Additionally, state exams can be used early in the school year as diagnostics to help districts design instructional support as kids reengage in school. 

Some are making rumblings that the statewide assessment should not be given in the spring of 2021.  While it’s reasonable to hold on accountability decisions tied to those tests (such as grade promotion) this school year, given the learning disruptions, it’s important that the test still be administered.  The results alone will provide critical information to policy makers about student learning in the 2020-2021 school year. Recent federal guidance to state chiefs underscores this point, indicating that waivers are not likely in 2021.

The NAEP provides an important state to state comparison (and, in some cases, district to district) for federal and state policy makers.  Both state test scores and NAEP scores are used in significant longitudinal research that matter for longer term system understanding and improvement.   

Include Testing in Any Equity Strategy

An equity strategy that does not include valid and reliable student academic measurement will make little impact.  If a proposed strategy does not ultimately drive toward improved student academic outcomes, where is the equity for kids?  How will it help students of color access increased opportunity in higher education and employment if their academic progress lags? 

Many parents want tests for their children, as several of our experts discuss. A recent poll from Democrats for Education Reform also shows that parents surveyed support spring testing this school year and the use of high-quality assessments for diagnostic purposes.

Inventory and Align All Tests

When teachers and parents complain about over-testing, the blame is often placed on state standardized testing and test prep.  But, campus-wide or district-wide testing inventories can reveal a different picture. 

The purpose and usage of each test given in a classroom should be clear and distinct.  Principals and district leaders should prioritize a regular inventory of all assessments given to students and identify their objectives.  Findings and recommendations should be shared broadly with all stakeholders, and strong instruction and curriculum should be prioritized over test prep. 

Create an Innovation Pathway

The current state standardized assessment development process leaves little room for innovation.  State agencies are limited to a small group of vendors with the capital and capacity to proffer a test under typically fast timelines.

Co-development is used widely in other industries  including pharma, aerospace, aviation  to facilitate innovation in large scale science-based projects that take time to do well.  The detailed and rigorous development of standardized tests is no different, and the sector would benefit from a similar approach.  Several of our experts outline elements of this rigorous design and why it matters; another describes a possible approach to co-development.

Communicate to Inform and Engage

Technocratic nuance about tests does not translate broadly. Clearly communicating the purpose and use of tests will better inform and engage teachers and parents — important stakeholders. 

These three steps will strengthen understanding.

  • Ensure that principals, teachers, parents, and students understand the purpose of each assessment and how resulting data will be used. This includes stopping the practice of unnecessarily panicking students about state standardized tests.
  • Create clear online resources to explain the design, scoring, and sample questions for standardized tests (for example, resources in Texas and Massachusetts)
  • Create a hub for all student academic progress data that can be easily accessed and understood by teachers, parents, and students. Report cards, district exams, state exams, and MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test data should be housed together so that parents can see their child’s full spectrum of academic results together.  Teachers and parents can use the hub for about their child’s progress  and to understand if their child is on grade level. Some states are providing data to parents in a way that they can understand, giving those parents the ability to talk to their kids’ teachers about how to best support student learning at home.

Strengthen Assessment Knowledge of Teachers and Principals

Assessment is a key element of teaching and learning — and of system accountability.  Too many educators have gaps in their understanding of assessment design, the role of formative and summative tests, and how standardized tests are a crucial equity tool.  Preparation programs and on-going professional support should offer updated content and training to help teachers and principals use and advocate for high-quality tests.  States should also involve teachers in creating standardized exams.

The current pandemic has blown apart the public education system as we knew it  simultaneously exacerbating vulnerabilities for many children and forcing rapid innovation to meet this instructional moment.  The adults in this system must now focus on two things in response.  The first is safety for kids and educators. The second is accelerating academic progress for all kids, regardless of race, ethnicity, or disability.  The work now is to organize the rest of the system to support those outcomes, and high-quality tests are an important tool in that worthy effort.