When the Biden administration announced required state standardized testing this spring, I was angry. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. A vast majority of students at the charter school I teach at in Boston plan to stay remote the rest of the year. What would testing look like in this context? And what could the results tell us?
Even pre-pandemic, in my five years as a high school teacher in Massachusetts and North Carolina, state tests were used for labeling schools and little else. Pressure the tests created affected my approach to teaching in ways that didn’t always serve my students. I love algebra and, in my experience, it’s much more engaging when taught experientially. But I saw a tradeoff between the time experiential lessons take and my ability to cover the total volume of material I knew my students were likely to encounter on state tests. I never received detailed student achievement reports for my current class or last year’s data, meaning that state test results didn’t help to inform differentiation in the classroom. To ensure that I provided my students with the support they needed, I relied heavily on formative quizzes and “exit ticket” assessments, but having access to student achievement reports would have exposed gaps that existed before students stepped into my classroom.
My initial anger subsided as I read more about the arguments for and against testing this spring. An opportunity exists for systemic change thanks to flexibility the Biden administration provides states in how they use test scores. Instead of labeling schools, scores can potentially inform how states and districts spend $123 billion in K-12 funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act stimulus package. These funds can benefit all students, especially those often left out of the conversation, like students in foster care or the juvenile legal system.
Flexibility can better enable 2020-21 test data to be used productively for students and schools, creating a reset opportunity from the frustrating status quo. In order for leaders and administrators to use the data to equitably support all students, change must follow the intent in five key ways:
Tests should be scored, with reports in teachers’ and families’ inboxes, by mid-summer
Teachers begin planning for the upcoming school year over the summer, often hoping to spiral in content that needs to be remediated the very first week of school. In my experience, reports from state tests are typically not released until several weeks into the school year. Providing detailed score reports to teachers earlier, on both their incoming students and last year’s class, would allow for more practical application of test scores in instruction.
The process of sharing test data across relevant agencies should be smoother
Schools are not the only organizations that can use test data to support students. Other agencies, such as the foster care system and family support services, could use group-level data, or individual student data with appropriate privacy safeguards, to better support students outside of school. But not every state makes this kind of data sharing transparent, consistent, and student-centered. If teachers aren’t getting this data in practice, it’s doubtful that other adults in children’s lives are getting the information they need. Even the fact that a student missed testing might be useful for a social worker or another service provider to know. If other agencies are aware that a child they work with did not attend tests, they can work with the family on a back-to-school preparation plan for the fall.
School leaders and administrators should identify and support students missing from testing
The Biden administration relaxed participation requirements to account for remote schooling and ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty. Education leaders and analysts should consider which populations of students may be absent from testing this year and the potential implications for interpreting results. Some students who aren’t present for testing may need additional support and remediation. Populations with less access to remote learning include students experiencing homelessness, students living in poverty, and students living in multigenerational households. Statistically, these students are more likely to be children of color — a lack of urgency in school administration supports may widen opportunity gaps.
Test results should inform how schools and districts spend federal stimulus funds
Districts and schools with widening opportunity gaps based on this year’s tests should shape their stimulus spending plans to address those results with research-backed interventions and improvement plans. Identifying populations most in need of support in these schools, and targeting resources accordingly, is critical. For example, if high schoolers underperformed in math, additional funding could go towards hiring in-school math tutors for students in need of additional learning support.
Academics shouldn’t be the sole focus
Academic performance is essential. As an algebra teacher, I want to know that my students are leaving my class ready to take on more advanced mathematical analyses. But I also want my students to get more from school than what is reflected in the state standards: I want them to feel safe, engage in deeper thinking, learn how to communicate with their classmates, and build a love of learning. Many students are struggling right now with the disruptions, trauma, and isolation the past year has brought. Remote learning has limited students’ social interaction and, for many, impeded their sense of safety and security. In addition to heeding what we can learn from state standardized tests, administrators should plan for interventions that support and serve students’ mental health and social-emotional needs.
I’ve moved on from my initial anger at state testing this year and have embraced a wait-and-see mindset. It will be interesting to see whether this year’s results will have a meaningful positive effect on my students and/or signal larger culture shifts around state standardized tests in the long run. Regardless, the most urgent priority for educators and school administrators should be marshalling all resources and information at their disposal to support all students in recovering lost instructional time due to the pandemic.
Kate Keller completed a project internship at Bellwether Education Partners this spring focused on educational continuity. She has taught high school for five years and is pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.