Asking the wrong questions about the 2021 standardized test scores

Asking the wrong questions about the 2021 standardized test scores

By Dale Chu

Is testing a failed strategy? This was the implication by a prominent testing critic in a recent piece for The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, in which he outlined eleven pointed questions for state lawmakers and other policymakers as part of what he called an “assessment of the assessors.” Punctuated with an emphatic “Testing is not learning!,” the author’s thick layer of snark clouds what could have otherwise been a thoughtful and constructive piece on the future of state testing.

To wit, some of his questions are fair to ask—especially those related to testing policy (more on that below)—but many of them were a bit simplistic and disingenuous, starting with the first: “What did you learn from spring 2021 standardized exam results that you did not already know about pandemic impacts on student performance?” For starters, state summative exams showed large levels of academic impact across all grades—unlike findings from interim assessments, which suggested the most impact among elementary students. And while many could and did anticipate an adverse effect of the pandemic on learning, no one could have guessed at the sheer magnitude: impacts “two to four times as large” as from those associated with Hurricane Katrina!

This brings us to the key questions we should be exploring about the 2021 data, and here the author is right to ask, “Have any policies been changed or educational resources reallocated based on spring 2021 test scores?” Unfortunately, the answer in too many places is a ‘no,’ but there are strong exceptions. Consider the example of Texas as evidenced by the provisions outlined in a bill passed into law last June. Starting this school year, any Texas student who did not pass the state test is required to receive accelerated instruction in the form of placement with a recognized exemplary teacher or supplemental instruction during or after school. Texas’s is the kind of effort that demonstrates seriousness about both state testing and education recovery.

The good questions on testing data policy notwithstanding, the author ultimately arrives at the wrong conclusion: the elimination of the federal annual testing requirement. Rather than using Covid as an excuse to blow them up, we would do well instead to approach the improvement of state tests with an asset-based mindset. We should seek to clear up the swirling public misperceptions—egged on by those skeptical of standardized tests to be sure—and use Texas as a shining example that data can help drive more resources to the students with the greatest need.

The truth is that state standardized tests are ultimately useful to the extent the data is well leveraged for ongoing and continuous improvement. In the age of Covid, testing’s importance depends on leadership and what kind of testing you’re talking about–and even then, you’ll be hard pressed to avoid creating a stir. Which is too bad because our sector could stand a little less heat on this issue and a lot more light in the form of common sense and fair-minded questions about how to help ensure assessment data is being used to target our resources smartly and effectively.

Are there other states out there that are following the Lone Star state’s lead by using their 2021 assessment data to concretely support pandemic recovery? We’d love to hear about them. Let us know in the comment section below.

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