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A Data Hound Weighs the Case for Canceling This Spring's State Tests

On Tuesday in this space, I argued that it's time for Secretary DeVos to scratch the 2020 state tests. Now, there are a number of questions that such a move would raise. One is how far the secretary's authority actually goes. Another is what else can be done to let education leaders focus on the challenges in front of them. And another is undoubtedly the question of tradeoffs. What would be the price of scratching this spring's tests or giving schools and districts added leeway? My friend and AEI colleague Nat Malkus, a guy with great affection for testing data, has a few thoughts on the tradeoffs that are worth sharing. Here's his take.

This week, my colleague Rick Hess openly asked Secretary DeVos to scrap federal requirements for this school year's assessments in light of the COVID-19 crisis. Since No Child Left Behind, federal law requires states to have all students take state-developed and -administered tests in grades 3-8, and once in high school, making Rick's call a significant break from established practice.

While Rick makes a compelling case, he is no testing aficionado to begin with. My affinity for assessments is much stronger—in part because my work lives and dies by the numbers and also because I believe tests are an essential, though undoubtedly insufficient, tool for improving achievement, efficiency, and equity in schools. As such, I want to weigh in on what might be lost if DeVos were to give a blanket waiver on state tests—and on why, despite this, she should give it anyway.

First off, losing these tests could be problematic because, when aligned to state learning standards, tests can assert healthy pressure to keep schools on target and students on the same general trajectory. Since they are reported for all students, and specific subgroups, test scores incentivize teachers and schools to serve all students well. Now, they certainly don't capture everything we want schools to do, but they can identify which schools are struggling to meet our minimum expectations for all students. Used responsibly, that information is an essential part of targeting resources and attention.

As COVID-19 shutters schools across the nation, these potential benefits are at a premium. Closed schools are working overtime to deliver education to students at home. It's important that in the midst of that transition, efforts to maintain high expectations and to reach all students—especially the disadvantaged—don't fall by the wayside.

That said, these potential benefits aren't worth the cost. We can't reasonably expect that teachers' attention will be motivated by tests right now. As they scramble to move instruction to online platforms, or provide materials for at-home learning, the marginal pressures from a standardized test are unlikely to produce better instruction and quite likely to get in the way. That may be because district and state officials are certainly attuned to what those federal requirements might mean. In some places, well-intentioned federal requirements are pushing districts to offer no educational services during shutdowns, out of concerns they won't reach all students equitably. If these requirements can add pressures to stop schooling completely, testing requirements can certainly push officials to shape emergency education provisions to meet the demands of narrow test scores at the cost of students' immediate learning needs.

But it's worth noting that losing the tests also means losing potentially valuable data. After this pandemic plays out, valid assessment data will be key to understanding what happened to students and how best to react when faced with similar challenges—God forbid—in the future. With 44 states closing schools as of last night, the disruption will certainly be pronounced. But it will be especially so for disadvantaged students—for whom the already unacceptably large achievement gaps are likely to grow.

Understanding those effects is the first step toward ameliorating them. And of course, we can't be certain that this disruption will be a one-time event. If COVID-19 is as seasonal as the flu, it could come roaring back in the fall, making any lessons we learn in the short term all the more valuable.

But, while valid assessment data would be useful, the most basic adage of data analysts clearly applies during this pandemic: garbage in, garbage out. Standardized-test data produced this spring would be invalid. The disruptions in learning will make any tracking of student progress a funhouse mirror. The guidance that data might provide would be better if based on assessments taken another time, perhaps in a low-stake assessment next fall.

Even as a self-professed testing aficionado, I agree with Rick, and the growing host of others, calling for Secretary DeVos to waive the federal assessment requirement for this spring. As it stands, state officials face the onerous task of filing a request for such a waiver, on top of their already rapidly expanding to-do list. The best way the secretary can support them in this crisis is by clearing away the now-senseless assessment requirements and letting district and state officials attend to the challenges immediately before them.

Look, these are unprecedented times. We're all trying to make judgment calls in real time, and this presents enormous challenges for officials at the U.S. Department of Ed. Anyway, you've seen my take and Nat's. Readers of RHSU bring a lot of expertise and experience to this question. I'd welcome the chance to hear your thoughts and insights.

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