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Are "high-stakes" tests really necessary after a year of this pandemic?
The federal government seems to think so.
The Education Trust, a nonprofit led by former Secretary of Education John King, released a letter in early February urging the Biden Administration to force states to administer summative assessments (also called “high-stakes” and “standardized” tests). This is necessary, they argue, to “understand the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and ensure that this pandemic does not undermine the futures of students.”
The Biden Administration seems to have obliged King’s request. Last week, the state of Pennsylvania told us prepare students for state tests when they return. A late April administration is possible, though it could get bumped to the fall depending on when students return to in-person learning. As of yet, there is no timetable for the return of students in tested grades.
High-stakes tests rose to prominence when No Child Left Behind was passed in 2004. The federal law proclaimed that all students would achieve “proficiency” on standardized tests in 12 years. After 16 years, we’re nowhere near that goal. In Philadelphia, we can barely crack 40% in reading and 30% in math. This quasi-experiment of subjecting students to yearly testing has not yielded the results we’re seeking.
That hasn’t stopped states from spending money on such tests. In in 2014-15, PA paid $57 million for high-stakes, standardized tests.
Data can be powerful, and after the strangest year in American public education, we should certainly use data to better understand the narrative of the last 12 months — even if part of me believes the narrative will be an extension of the one truism in public education: that students in districts with high levels of poverty do worse, on average, than students in wealthier districts.
But do we need lengthy (administration for us takes 3 days for reading, 3 days for math, and a day for science) and costly high-stakes tests to get that data? Probably not?
I wonder if most districts already have enough data to understand the effects of this pandemic. In Philadelphia, we’re slowly working towards a more coherent, more equitable, and less oppressive assessment program. With STAR tests and aimsweb assessments — tests used by schools around the country — we have enough data to show which students are making growth and where additional support is needed.
Might the federal government work with states and testing companies to collectively analyze that already-existing data, much in the same way they worked with states to adopt the Common Core Standards?
Many states have already grown weary of these summative tests, Pennsylvania included. In 2018, PA Governor Tom Wolf signed a bill reducing the reliance on high-stakes tests as a graduation requirement. In 2017, Wolf reduced testing time from three weeks to two weeks, with the state’s press release saying, “The move is designed to ease stress on students and to give them up to two additional weeks to learn before taking the assessment.”
If easing stress and prioritizing actual learning time was a priority in 2017, shouldn’t it be one now?
Last week, a good friend of mine who lives abroad messaged me with elation that her children would return to school this week. Schools there had been closed since January because of fast-spreading Covid variants.
Here’s the message she got from the headmaster: Consequently, in a meeting of the Heads and Principals this morning, we agreed that, whilst we have confidence in our curriculum coverage to date, the very strong focus of these forthcoming weeks in school will be on human reconnection and on the mental health and wellbeing of our school community. We will not, for example, be setting homework, but will instead place great importance on rebuilding the community and re-establishing the human relationships which are so fundamental to our children’s school careers and, indeed, to all our lives.”
Focusing on rebuilding community and re-establishing human relationships might not yield the kind of data that our current education leaders crave, and that doesn’t make them any less important. We could forego another year of tests — we have almost 20 years of their data to know where we’re missing the mark — and reinvest that money into more counselors, better playgrounds, more field trips, or more beautiful classrooms (or at least some with air conditioning). After almost a year out of buildings, I’ve heard many students say, through muffled Zoom voices, that they miss their friends and their teachers. I haven’t heard any say they miss the tests. Secretary King and others would be wise to take note.