Demystifying state assessments

Demystifying state assessments

By Dale Chu

Bellwether just released a set of briefs—six in total—that offer a primer on how state standardized assessments are developed, scored, and reported. With spring testing season now upon us, the timing of Bellwether’s latest publication is right, and comes as standardized exams continue to face political headwinds. More myth-busting, as is the case with this new resource, could be helpful in an environment that has become increasingly skeptical of testing and accountability.

Clearly formatted and presented without jargon, the briefs are accessible and easy-to-understand for those who want to expand their knowledge of testing’s nuts and bolts. Each is fairly short (two to five pages), opening with the same one-page overview and followed by key takeaways presented in a Q&A format. Each brief concludes with endnotes with links to additional reading.

Given all of the emotional discomfort with testing, one of my favorites is the third brief in the series: “Developing High-Quality Assessments and Items.” Contrary to what testing skeptics might assert, a lot of behind-the-scenes due diligence and intentionality goes into the development of a valid and reliable exam—including how a test is structured as well as the tools and statistics that are leveraged to ensure questions are fair and unbiased. For example, an item’s “discrimination” value is essential to ensure it is identifying students who know the content compared to those who don’t. Yes, it’s wonky, but the example underscores how standardized tests are not put together willy-nilly.

Indeed, there are many criticisms of standardized testing—some more valid than others—but one of the most insidious is that these tests are particularly unfair to marginalized populations. Author Freddie deBoer has done as much as anyone to help debunk this claim:

Educational testing has become unpopular because of what testing reveals, which is deep inequality along racial and class lines. These inequalities are indeed lamentable, but they can’t be wished away by refusing to measure them with the tools we have available to us. Nor does it do any good to insist, as so many now do, that any racial inequalities in testing means the tests are racist, anymore than finding higher levels of lead in Black children’s blood means that lead testing is racist. 

Through Bellwether’s useful report, the reader will hopefully gain insights into—and a better understanding and appreciation of—the time, effort, and deliberate processes that go into statewide assessment systems. To be sure, they are imperfect tools, but these tests are powerful ones nonetheless to say nothing of probably being the best we currently have. It does no one any good—especially students from low-income communities—to pretend that the information they provide is of little to no value.

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