The school year is underway — and educators, leaders and advocates are looking for data to make the most of learning time and to understand where to best allocate resources. Recent research and newly released state assessment results suggest that the interruption of in-person schooling has led to unfinished learning — lessons that students missed or didn’t master due to distance learning and COVID-19 — for many students, especially those who were underserved before the pandemic.

The Education Trust, and several of our civil rights, social justice, disability rights, and education advocacy partners, continue to advocate for the use of statewide assessments to shine a light on inequities and to allocate critical resources to students who need them the most. While there has been some pushback, the insights that test-based data provide will help states implement more equitable approaches to serving students, especially as they look to disseminate federal stimulus money.

To sort through this complicated topic, I sat down with Terra Wallin, Associate Director for P-12 Accountability and Special Projects and former high school educator, who debunks the myths of statewide assessments.

Why are statewide tests important? Do they really improve learning outcomes?

Assessments are one of the strongest tools for signaling which districts, schools, and students need additional support and resources. Assessment data gives school, district, and state leaders a clear image of not only what groups of students need additional support, but how individual students are faring. These results allow schools, districts, and states to identify where they need to take action to invest more in student learning.

Assessments can also be a helpful long-term tool for parents and educators. Students’ test scores in elementary and middle school can accurately help predict their academic performance in high school.
Given that statewide assessments are a strong indicator of later academic success, early student performance on these assessments can serve as both a warning system to make the case for additional supports as soon as possible (as opposed to assuming that additional years of the same instruction will change a student’s trajectory) or a signal that students are ready for more rigorous coursework. They can also help advocates to find and advocate on behalf of the districts and schools with the greatest inequities.

Let me be clear: Assessments alone do not solve the problems many students face. However, the data from these assessments can be used to drive real action to address the systemic inequities they bring to light.

How can assessments provide insight on unfinished learning?

Learning looked a lot different last year. While there have been national studies measuring unfinished learning indicating that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds have been disproportionately affected, these studies do not identify which schools and which individual students need additional support.

Though it is important to have a high-level understanding of who was most impacted by the pandemic and distance learning, the personalized results that statewide assessments provide will allow schools to meet students where they are and begin addressing interrupted learning in their own community.
State assessments will allow parents and families, who are key advocates for their child’s education, to see whether their child is meeting grade level expectations. This will provide them with one tool they need to be their child’s advocate to make sure that their child or children have the skills to live the life of their choosing.

Why do we need statewide assessments if we already have local assessments and grading?

While local assessments are helpful to educators in painting a picture of student progress, they do not serve the same purpose as statewide summative assessments, which give a comparable picture of student learning against grade-level standards across a state.

Local assessments may not be aligned to grade-level standards. These local tests are made by educators who interact with students daily, but they lack any review process to check for test-maker bias. This means that the implicit biases a teacher may hold — for instance, lower expectations for students of color — can translate to the tests they are creating or administering to students. Similarly, grades from one classroom to another are difficult to compare, much less trying to look across schools or districts, especially when the grading system and academic expectations vary greatly.

Also, locally administered tests may not provide the appropriate accommodations to meet the needs of students from different backgrounds, especially for English learners and students with disabilities. These groups may require additional support to ensure that their test and results are truly representative of what they have or haven’t learned.

Do assessments favor students who are from a higher-income background, as some opponents to assessments have claimed?

Assessments are imperfect, and we should always be working to improve them. However, they are our best, comparable, academic measure of how well students are being served in their schools. Eliminating assessments will not erase the inequities that many students face; it will simply erase a critical tool that policy makers, school leaders, and families use to assess and advocate for equity.

While there is often a correlation between a student’s socioeconomic status and their statewide assessment results, these tests are not a measure of income or of student potential, but instead a measure of how well (or poorly) state and local systems are providing resources and learning opportunities for all students, including students from low-income backgrounds.

By assuming that assessment data is just a measure of income, we risk not identifying other inequities. For example, racial disparities in student achievement and outcomes exist even among students from high-income families.

In some districts, White students from lower-income families demonstrate higher assessment outcomes than Black students from higher-income families. Statewide assessments give insight into what schools, especially those who serve students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, are succeeding. This allows education leaders to learn what policies and practices are working and will help advocates push to expand those strategies to other schools and districts.

You’re a former teacher and policymaker. Why do you feel so strongly that assessments are the right thing to do?

Children and educators need to know that the results of statewide assessments will be used to target additional resources and supports, not to punish an individual student or teacher.

If you look at an average school day, students take some type of assessment nearly every day. When I was teaching high school English, I used daily writing exercises and exit tickets, weekly quizzes, and end-of-unit tests to see where my students needed additional support. I did my best to take the information from those assessments and translate that into scaffolding and support for the next day’s lesson, the next unit, and even my yearly plan.

My students would sometimes get anxious about the tests I gave or for the year-end tests, but that was often because of pressure about how the data from those assessments would be used and how it could negatively impact their education moving forward.

Also, it’s important to note that statewide assessments in math and English are generally only given once a year, and only in grades 3-8, and once in high school. Much of the testing that students regularly engage in is through teachers, school or district developed, or required assessments.

There is no doubt that the last year and a half has been stressful and that we need to have a real conversation about the future of summative assessments, but it feels disingenuous to blame tests alone for the stress and anxiety that students feel as they navigate an inequitable and unjust system.