Student assessment during COVID-19: A conversation with Laura Jimenez (Part II)

Student assessment during COVID-19: A conversation with Laura Jimenez (Part II)

By Dale Chu

Laura Jimenez is the Director of Standards and Accountability at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy and research think tank. Last month, Laura authored a report titled Student Assessment During COVID-19, which discussed why schools should assess students next year using annual state tests; the role other assessments might play in supporting high-quality instruction; and what states and systems can do to support measurement and data in the wake of the pandemic. Because of her expertise in state assessment systems, Laura was a guest speaker last summer as part of Assessment HQ’s webinar series. I wanted to spend more time delving into her paper and her outlook on state testing. In part two of this three-part interview, Laura makes the case for state testing and offers some advice on how the federal government can help.

Dale Chu: What’s the case for resuming state testing in 2021?

Laura Jimenez: It’s the same case that was made in requiring annual testing to begin with – to learn about and to address learning gaps. Nearly 20 years of testing data show us that not all children have the same opportunity to learn.

Given what we already know from media reports and early studies this year on the impacts to students as they transition to virtual learning, these gaps are only getting worse. Many students are not accessing online learning, going without critical services and missing out on classes. What’s worse is that students who were already behind – low-income students (who are also more likely to be students of color) – are being hit the worst. A study by economist Raj Chetty reviewed online math coursework data and found that overall, performance in math was up by 4 percent. But that same data by income level show that wealthy student performance is up +53% and declined -28.7% for low-income students.

Now, this isn’t measuring performance for all students and this tests’ purpose is not to evaluate student learning like a state test would, but it’s one sobering indicator for what we might see in annual assessment data for this year. This gap could be indicative of the impact of additional resources wealthier parents provide their children, including supplemental supports like tutors and small group learning run by teachers. If students do not return to the classroom, the impact of these differences will only worsen. So, in order to be able to direct resources to those students who most need them, educators and policymakers need the objective data on all students that annual state assessments provide.

Dale: You served at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. What else do you think the feds could/should be doing to support states with test administration next spring?

Laura: First, be more explicit about whether states must issue the full battery of the annual assessment or if they may modify it so that it takes less time to administer. The assessment is lengthy, and its results take a long time to process because they must meet specific technical standards. Does the state assessment need to meet all the technical requirements included in the law?

Second, be proactive and more specific about offering limited and specific waivers for accountability. The Department should answer the question about what accountability requirements can be waived next year. For example, one waiver that should not be granted is the requirement to hold high schools accountable for graduation rate.

Third, convene experts to provide guidance on how states can proceed with some version of a test in the spring that will be used to inform decision-making at the state and district levels. These same experts should weigh in on how states, districts and schools can most effectively use these results to drive policy and the allocation of resources.

Finally, commit resources to studying the impacts on student learning and growth. This could be done by re-directing some funds used to study Title I done by the Institute for Educational Sciences (IES).

Dale: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently shot down the idea of another round of testing waivers, but a number of states are holding out hope that a new administration will have a change of heart. Should states be taking this “wait and see” approach?

Laura: It’s important to note that unless states act now, they will no longer be able to make any changes to their annual tests in time. There are the technical aspects of the test itself, then considerations for how that test will be administered and all of the related decisions will take time to plan. Plus, the question of how to administer assessments this spring is not limited to just the tests themselves. For example, any changes to assessments may have implications for state law or state board policy if some aspects of assessments are required by these bodies. And there will also be significant considerations for how the tests will be administered – whether that’s in person or virtually. States will need to administer the assessments in ways that prioritize health and safety. So, by the time a Biden administration takes office, it may be too late for states to organize all of these facets of such a large-scale effort.

The small window of time in which states have to act is another reason that the Department of Education should very quickly signal more clearly that they are open to considering limited and specific waivers for accountability. If the Trump administration doesn’t do this, then the Biden administration should. Having this clear signal could free up states to think creatively about how to administer the annual test in the spring, without having to worry that the results will be used for accountability.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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