Educators could be forgiven for breathing a huge sigh of relief when state assessments were cancelled in 2020 (and with them, school ratings). Adding “high-stakes testing” to the mix of frustration and confusion that marked the “at-home learning” experience of April and May might have been the proverbial straw.
And such a major disruption to an entrenched process is a natural time for people at all levels to question the assessment and accountability system itself, especially as it occurs simultaneous to a national reckoning with systemic racism. Many of us are now thinking deeply about structures that beneficiaries of privilege have taken for granted in all aspects of life (public safety, housing, health care, education), whether and how they are inherently designed to maintain our privilege at the expense of other groups, and what to do about it.
This is good and necessary. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the school accountability systems that grew out of NCLB, while calling broad attention to the concept of “the achievement gap” have not actually served to bring about equal rates of learning for all students.
But at least we can prove the gaps persist. The evidence provided by state assessments is invaluable to continuing the national and local conversations about how to build a more equitable education system.
As fatigued as educators, students, and parents are right now, there is pressure on lawmakers to maintain the pause on state assessments in 2021. But it will be a mistake to throw out the proverbial baby (i.e., standards-based assessments) with the bathwater (e.g., sanctions for poor results).
As long as we can test students safely, we need to continue to measure their progress toward mastery of grade-level standards. Annual assessments will allow us to know which groups of students have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic so we can appropriately address their needs. They will allow us to know which teachers have been able to elicit remarkable student growth in these extraordinary circumstances so we can learn from them.
A two-year pause in testing would result in a three-year blind spot in understanding what just happened.
In these turbulent times, let’s continue to question whether our academic standards, assessments, and accountability systems are resulting in more equitable student outcomes. But let’s remember we can improve only what we measure.
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