States Must Act Now to Ensure Testing and Data Collection Serve Students Effectively and Equitably this School Year

October 1, 2020

Report recommends a strategic and balanced approach to assessments and data collection efforts during a period of ongoing disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic

Contact: Ross Wiener
Executive Director
Aspen Institute Education & Society Program
202-841-7998 |

Scott F. Marion
Executive Director
Center for Assessment
303-818-1145 |

Washington, DC, October 1, 2020 — State policymakers must take immediate steps to put an effective assessment system in place this year and collect vital data to ensure equitable access to teaching and learning, according to a report released today by the Aspen Institute and the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment (Center for Assessment).

Planning must begin now to adapt state assessment systems, including contingencies for remote and hybrid settings, in order to generate any useful information about student learning this school year. While state tests are typically administered in spring, they take time to design and develop. Any changes to test-related accountability systems may require a waiver from federal requirements and changes in state law or regulation.

The report comes a few weeks after the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to chief state school officers indicating there would be no blanket state testing waivers. However, the letter acknowledged assessment and data collection may need to look different this year. The report argues that federal waivers of some kind may be necessary because administering tests and interpreting test scores this year will be enormously difficult.

“These recommendations support state leaders in pursuing the best possible approach to assessment and data collection given limited time and limited means,” said John White, former Louisiana State Superintendent, and a board member of the Center for Assessment. “Testing skeptics and testing hawks both need to stand down a little bit so that leaders can make tough decisions without getting hammered from the ideological cheap seats.”

Given the ongoing disruptions to education from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the additional stressors students are experiencing from economic distress and the racial reckoning gripping the country, education policymakers need a strategic and balanced approach to assessments and data collection efforts this year. In addition to determining whether there are appropriate ways to administer statewide achievement tests, states need to create a robust data collection system, that can be phased in over time, for measuring student access to education—including digital devices and broadband—and healthy conditions for learning and high-quality curriculum. Such Opportunity-to-Learn (OTL) data, as it is called, provides stakeholders with vital equity information and essential context for interpreting summative test scores. State leaders can collect these data in a variety of ways, including through student surveys, attendance records, by examining curricular offerings, and studying school schedules to see how much time students have to interact with teachers and peers.

“State education leaders have a moral and legal responsibility to document how students are doing in the face of the current educational crisis, and they need tools to fulfill that role. High-quality data collected at the state, district, and school level can offer a more complete picture of the state of education in our communities than test scores alone and can spotlight where resources are most needed,” said Ross Wiener, Executive Director of the Education & Society Program at Aspen.

The report responds to the contentious debate between advocates calling for no testing this year at all and others arguing that testing must proceed, even if conditions don’t warrant it. In re-centering the public conversation on useful measurement this year, the report notes that poor data can do more harm than good by misidentifying problems and overlooking actual student needs.

One of the biggest challenges to administering high-quality tests in the current environment is due to the varying ways students are experiencing school—from in-person to remote to hybrid settings. While some assessment companies have made progress in their ability to deliver remote tests, there is no way to assure comparability between those assessments and tests administered in-person this year or with past years. With that in mind, the report’s authors recommend that state officials seek to decouple the tests from accountability uses, especially when tests must be taken remotely.

The report also makes the case that states should consider shortening and adjusting tests to align to prioritized key standards and topics, as well as potentially sampling students this year rather than attempting a universal administration to all students.

“I’ve dedicated my professional career to assessing student learning, so I do not offer these cautions casually,” commented co-author Scott Marion, Executive Director of the Center for Assessment. “The first priority this year needs to be on making sure students have access to school and that their fundamental needs for safety, stability, and connectedness are addressed. Assessment closest to the classroom must be prioritized and collecting OTL information is essential for support accurate interpretations of all assessment results this year and in the future.”

The report is available to read here.

About the Aspen Institute Education & Society Program:

The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization committed to realizing a free, just, and equitable society. The Aspen Institute Education & Society Program improves public education by inspiring, informing, and influencing education leaders to take action across policy and practice, with an emphasis on achieving equity for students of color and children from low-income backgrounds. Aspen Education supports leaders at all levels – from urban superintendents and their teams, to state chiefs and their cabinets, to elected officials and their staffers, to education support organizations, associations, nonprofits, and philanthropy. To learn more about the Education & Society Program, visit our website.

About the Center for Assessment:

The National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, Inc. (The Center for Assessment) is a not-for-profit, non-partisan corporation comprised of assessment and accountability experts with a keen awareness of policy and practical considerations. Center professionals provide customized support to states and districts in designing, implementing, and improving fair, effective, and defensible assessment and accountability programs. The Center leads and/or serves on technical advisory committees for more than 35 states. For additional information about the Center for Assessment, please visit our website.


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