K-12 Education

Reassessing Our Pandemic Priorities

October 22, 2020  • Christopher Maximos, Sophomore at Stanford University & Education and Society Program

Following the first set of lockdowns, many of my high school-aged friends approached me in a panic. They worried that the shutdown would prevent them from taking the ACT or SAT before their final application deadline. Now a year removed from the college admissions process, I assuaged their fears, reminding them that no standardized test should be a priority amid a pandemic. I can rather sheepishly admit, however, that I would have had the same concerns if I were a high school junior. For many, these tests can be the difference between acceptance and rejection or a scholarship and full tuition at a university. Thankfully for my high school peers, a number of colleges have waived SAT and ACT requirements for the 2021 application cycle, acknowledging the extraordinary circumstances facing students.

As this new school year begins, the vast majority of states have not taken the same decisive action to limit their standardized test requirements. Georgia became the first state to request a standardized testing waiver from the Department of Education on July 13th, citing a survey in which ninety-six percent of respondents supported the waiver request. In response, Assistant Secretary Jim Blew said that the Department’s “instinct would not be to give those waivers. There are so many benefits to testing, and it allows for some transparency about how schools are performing.” 

The overwhelming majority of students agree that testing provides important data. The question is whether that data will accurately account for the effects of the pandemic and remote learning. After all, these tests remain the paramount markers for millions of students’ academic progression and success. Barring another exemption, seniors in my home state of New Jersey will need to demonstrate proficiency on math and language arts examinations to graduate in 2021. Younger students’ assessment scores will determine their placement in core classes for years to come. 

Frankly, the problems facing schools last year that motivated Sec. DeVos to waive federal assessment guidelines have not disappeared. It remains both unsafe and logistically impossible for most schools to administer exams with in-person with social distancing regulations. Most students lack an environment conducive to taking standardized tests at home. Finally, we are painfully aware that students are experiencing learning loss. Economist Raj Chetty’s Opportunity Insights project found that students’ progress in online math coursework decreased by three percent between January and May. If standardized tests return in full force, teachers will have to gloss over six months of remediation to fit in twelve months of new curriculum, a model that is sustainable for no one. If we can acknowledge that schools have not returned back to normal, we should not reinstate normal modes of assessment.

I do not believe that students should have no standardized assessments in the 2020-2021 school year. Rather, I ask that policymakers and state superintendents forward more efficient assessment systems that offer valuable insights on student performance without compounding student stress. This starts with prioritizing digital, formative assessments like Georgia’s BEACON system. Designed for elementary and middle school students, BEACON gives regular feedback on students’ mastery of the Georgia Standards of Excellence, allowing educators to target their instruction. Such formative assessments offer states and educators the data they need about student progress while minimizing the time and stress that typical accountability-based standardized testing brings.

Most states do not have a ready-made system like BEACON to roll out in the coming months.  However, they can lower the stakes of assessments by reducing the weight of standardized tests in teacher evaluations, class placements, and graduations. Recommendations from the  Aspen Institute Education & Society Program and the National Center for Assessment charge policymakers to limit, if not suspend, accountability measures associated with standardized tests for this school year. Lowering the stakes of tests will reduce the stress of students and teachers alike. Instead of solely relying on scores to place students into an advanced English class, solicit a free-writing sample or conduct an interview with the prospective student. Allow students to submit portfolios of their classwork to appeal graduation assessment requirements. Include more data from student surveys to complement the weight of test scores in teacher evaluations. In short, give learners and educators more opportunities to prove themselves beyond the test.

Finally, as the Aspen Institute and National Center for Assessment recommendations suggest, states should use this year’s series of tests to collect opportunity-to-learn data. Surveys about remote learning conditions, such as internet and device accessibility can be appended to standardized tests, offering critical context about how students are learning at home. This data isn’t just valuable to education policy: it can inform policymakers on how the digital infrastructure and social safety net have weathered the pandemic. Obviously, states cannot design an expansive OTL data collection system overnight, but this year is the perfect time to focus on a few key metrics and design a long-term strategy for expanded surveying. 

Extraordinary circumstances call for equally extraordinary accommodations. Students taking on second jobs to support their families, going to local stores to get reliable WiFi for remote learning, and struggling with their own health issues should not be worried about the ELA PARCC or the ACT.  Ultimately, it’s time that we reassess our priorities during this pandemic and forward testing systems that contribute to learning rather than commandeer it.