Assessment power rankings: States with the best approach to measuring student progress

Assessment power rankings: States with the best approach to measuring student progress

By Dale Chu

With testing season about to begin (or in some cases, having already begun), states are wrestling with a host of tricky decisions regarding the administration of annual assessments. The hurdles are particularly daunting in states where schools have continued to remain shuttered (i.e., the West Coast and Maryland), creating cascading tensions along class and race. It’s important to be upfront about these challenges and to acknowledge the efforts of state and district leaders across the country as they grapple with a school year like no other.

What’s more, it’s worth underscoring this year’s decoupling of accountability from assessment. For years, testing skeptics have lamented the “high-stakes” nature of state testing. Although I would argue this debate has been more about perception than reality, it’s moot now that the feds have taken accountability off of the table. In fact, testing has never been more “low-stakes” than in this current year, and we should be incredibly appreciative to President Joe Biden, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, and elected leaders like Senator Patty Murray and Representative Bobby Scott among others for providing this flexibility to states so that they can focus on collecting the data they’ll need to effectively drive the nation’s education recovery.*

Indeed, the next few weeks will be critical to ensuring that this valuable data is gathered in earnest. To wit, the U.S. Department of Education just ruled on the waiver applications for Colorado, Georgia, and South Carolina, with decisions on more states assuredly on the way. Over the coming days and weeks, I’ll be doing a deep dive into some of these asks and seeing how they measure up as part of my “assessment power rankings.”

How we rank: The assessment power rankings will use a four-point scale (1-4), which, taken together, help provide the equity guardrails necessary to ensure the performance of historically marginalized student groups isn’t swept under the rug. States can receive credit—with a maximum score of 16 points—for adhering to each of the following principles:

        1. Opportunity to demonstrate learning of all students: In a normal year, the federal government requires 95% participation on state tests. Although few expect states to meet that threshold this year, states should actively encourage—or better yet incentivize—as many students as reasonably possible to participate and to demonstrate what they know in ELA and math.

        1. Comparability: While many schools and districts administer local assessments, which can be a more instructionally valuable tool, they are rarely peer reviewed to control for quality or bias. Without this control, it’s too easy to mislead parents and other stakeholders about whether students are proficient. Moreover, they cannot replace the comparability and key insights provided by a standardized statewide assessment. Some may argue that comparisons can still be made from different local tests across districts, but the comparability provided by a consistently administered statewide assessment would be stronger.

        1. Effective communication: Will state testing this year be valuable or a waste of time? Will the tests help gather useful data or will they be disruptive to learning? Will students and teachers rise up to the challenge of testing during an extraordinary year or will they be further traumatized by additional pressure? Does the language employed by elected and appointed officials convey an interest in testing as an essential oversight responsibility or does it resemble a compliance charade being done out of reluctance? How state, district, and local leaders frame the messaging and tone on testing will go a long way towards determining how students and families view assessments this year.

        1. Timing and urgency: States will soon begin receiving tranches of federal dollars to help safely reopen schools and support education recovery. They will need timely data to fully understand the impact of the pandemic and to determine strategies for effectively allocating funding to move students forward. With the end of the school year within sight, every state should have a sensible timeline for measuring student performance that aligns with a smart and prudent approach to recovery.

As the pandemic recedes, we’re beginning to get a sense of which states are committed to measuring student progress after a year of learning disruptions, which states are looking to wiggle out of their oversight responsibilities, and those in between. By evaluating select states against these four principles, the leaders and laggards on state testing will come into focus.

Stay tuned!

*Testing skeptics—who have harped on the “punitive” nature of annual testing since their advent post NCLB—have remained deafeningly silent about the removal of stakes this year.

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