More questions than answers on state testing

More questions than answers on state testing

By Dale Chu

As the second semester gets underway, the debate about whether or not the federal government should waive state testing will soon come to a head. Betsy DeVos is gone and, although she said she wouldn’t offer waivers again, decisions about what to do this spring now fall to Biden’s education secretary, Miguel Cardona. The pressure he faces will be significant, with growing calls from various groups to skip the tests. One potential solution is the use of remote assessments, a topic explored last month in Forbes by the Collaborative for Student Success’ Jim Cowen. Given the number of questions about its feasibility, Cowen’s Q&A with national test vendors offers reason for encouragement and helps to fill a vacuum of information.

Not so fast, says the Center for Assessment’s Scott Marion in a thought-provoking rebuke last week. Regular readers will know this isn’t the first time I’ve wrangled with Marion, but he does raise honest concerns and his writing is always clear-eyed and worth reading. In taking issue with the piece, Marion argues that the vendors are dismissing the legitimate case against remote testing during COVID-19:

[Measurement experts] are urging caution… yet state policymakers might be reading a prestigious publication like Forbes urging states to don’t worry and be happy with remote testing. It’s simply unfair to put state leaders in this position.

I didn’t read Cowen’s message to be a hakuna matata as much as it was an effort to shed light on alternative options at a time when we need tests to be easier to administer and easier to take because of today’s circumstances. I agree with Marion that the efficacy of remote testing is not a settled matter, but few things ever are. This is why vendors need to work closely with state technical advisory committees and why state leaders need to probe deeper with vendors to better understand their options. Every solution in this moment will require trade offs—especially the outright cancellation of testing, which would leave states with a gaping, two-year data hole.

Look, I understand the arguments against testing this spring especially if kids aren’t back in school. Marion raises a number of them in his piece, including test security, comparability, access to internet and devices, and administration conditions to say nothing of accommodations required for special education students. Indeed, testing skeptics have good arguments on all of these issues. Pressing ahead this spring doesn’t mean waving them away. It does mean states and districts will have to be flexible, creative, and a laundry list of adjectives not typically ascribed to our education system. To wit, some states have been making excuses to shirk testing once again.

But there’s a difference between an explanation and an excuse. I’m happy to concede that state testing as we’ve known it is virtually impossible without kids in physical buildings. I’m happy to concede there are arguably better ways to use the precious time that remains this school year. I’m happy to concede that remote assessments as they currently exist leave much to be desired. All of these things can be true, it still doesn’t excuse the lack of imagination among decision makers—especially those in states where many students are still learning in-person—insisting upon pressing the easy button of canceling annual assessments, never mind the officials who were cravenly against them even before the pandemic. There’s a surfeit of explanations for why testing—remote or otherwise—can’t be done, but a shortage of good excuses.

This question of remote assessments is symptomatic of the problem with the broader testing debate. That is, the all-or-nothing proposition of testing in-person or foregoing it entirely—when states and districts are in very different places. Rather than offering a blanket waiver, Cardona would do well to look his former colleagues straight in the eyes and ask how the feds can help them safely and responsibly test as many students as possible. Put the burden on their shoulders. Maybe that means adjusting the format. Maybe that means pushing back the testing window. Maybe that means a shorter test that includes remote testing as one option. There are more questions than answers to be sure, which means leaders will have to put their heads together if they’re going to rise to the occasion.

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