This past spring, after schools closed to limit the spread of the coronavirus, all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the District of Columbia were given permission by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to suspend or cancel their K-12 accountability testing—something that hasn’t happened since 1994, when federal law first started requiring annual exams.
With schools set to resume in the weeks to come, it’s still not clear how many buildings will actually reopen. As of July 23rd, more than three quarters of district leaders said they planned to offer a mixture of in-person and online instruction but, as death tolls rise, more districts are announcing each day that 100 percent of learning will be remote as the fall semester begins.
Amid this uncertainty, a smattering of policymakers, educators and advocates are calling for a resumption of statewide testing. In early July, for instance, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that students would be required to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STARR) exams in 2020-21. A few days later, Florida Department of Education chief of staff Alex Kelly told district leaders that there were no plans to seek a waiver from federal testing requirements for 2020-21. Moreover, after leaders in Michigan, Georgia, and South Carolina did request that ED grant testing waivers for 2020-21, the department’s leadership indicated that no waivers will be forthcoming.
The justification for resuming during a pandemic has been that the exams are needed for diagnostic purposes. As Assistant Secretary at ED, Jim Blew, said, “Accountability aside, we need to know where students are so we can address their needs.” Similarly, Morath, the Texas Commissioner, told state school board members, “Educators, unless they have some other robust assessment … can’t adjust our educational support of kids accordingly.”
Yet statewide exams are not appropriate for diagnosing learning needs for individual teachers and students. Instead, they are designed to assess state, district and school-level efforts to cover a broad set of state standards. In fact, teachers rarely even receive the results until their students have moved on to the next grade level.
For this reason, education officials and advocates in several states say that so-called “diagnostic assessments”—not the summative exams required by federal law—should be administered when schools resume. For example, 10 education advocacy groups led by Denver-based A+ Colorado, called for state leaders to spend federal CARES Act funds to administer a “statewide diagnostic tool” to every K-12 student in Colorado. Their letter mentions an assortment of off-the-shelf, “well-established and widely-used” “diagnostic assessments” listed in a reportby Education Reform Now, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
Ultimately, Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said that the state would not use a single diagnostic tool to assess student readiness when school resumes, because this approach would “distract districts from focusing on critical fall reopening priorities, result in unnecessary duplication, and not necessarily be aligned to local curricula.”
Nevertheless, the idea of using such a one-size-fits-all tool for diagnostic purposes is likely baked into school reopening plans throughout the country. For example, the School District of Osceola County, FL will administer NWEA’s MAP exam three times this school year as a “diagnostic tool” and “approach for diagnosing unfinished learning,” according to the 69,000-student district’s state-approved reopening plan. And California’s 16,000-student Cajon Valley Union School District has purchased Curriculum Associate’s i-Ready virtual diagnostic tool to diagnose student learning in English/language arts and math at the beginning of the school year.
Yet National Education Policy Center Fellow and University of Colorado Distinguished Professor and Dean Emerita, Lorrie Shepard, says that a single, uniform, off-the-shelf tool cannot provide the information that teachers need to meet students where they are and teach them what they need to learn.