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Assessments matter: Students still need to master reading, writing and math—even during a pandemic

Included in the list of demands (their word, not mine) that teachers’ unions across the country have made is a moratorium on standardized testing. However, federal testing requirements aren’t expected to be waived in spring 2021 as they were this past spring, a decision that was not surprisingly criticized by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, but that surprisingly won rare praise from congressional Democrats.

Given that many students were struggling and behind academically pre-COVID, measuring student achievement and academic progress through state assessments during a pandemic—even if it’s challenging—matters, according to Aaron Churchill with the Thomas Fordham Institute.

One, state assessments gauge where students stand against grade-level expectations. The pandemic may have upended our lives, but it has not changed the timeless reality that students need to master reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Taking only about 1 percent of a student’s school year, these “summative” exams serve as a vital check on learning that enable parents, schools, and communities to better understand whether children are on-track academically or need extra help.

In addition to showing student progress toward meeting state standards, state assessments can also help guard against lowered expectations, particularly given the number of schools relying on distance learning this year, Churchill continues.

Widespread concerns have been raised about student learning via this delivery method, especially among children with special needs and from low-income backgrounds. Upholding the assessment system this year would help to ensure that schools are doing everything in their power to keep all students engaged and working towards grade-level standards. Indeed, concerns about schools falling prey to the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is one reason why civil rights groups have been such outspoken advocates for assessments, including their administration this coming spring.

As I wrote here, state assessment scores are not the only indicator of success, but they do play a key role in evaluating learning in a way that grades don’t always capture. For example, Churchill points to the non-academic factors, such as attendance or participation, that course grades often factor in, which can lead to grade inflation and “overstate students’ actual mastery of the course material.”

Given that numerous students have struggled to learn during the coronavirus, getting baseline information sooner rather than later will aid the recovery process, Churchill continues.

While the cancellation of last year’s state tests was necessary, it also means that up-to-date information about achievement doesn’t exist. Another year of cancelled state tests would only compound the problem, leaving us even less informed about the academic toll of months of disruption. Communities would likely have to rely on anecdotes and assumptions about student needs—hardly the foundation for effective planning—and they’d need to wait yet another year to begin tracking progress moving forward. Another gap year in state testing would also complicate the calculation of student growth (or “value-added”), a critical measure that provides a look at school quality that isn’t tied to pupil demographics.

Academic disparities and widening achievement gaps were a problem pre-COVID and unfortunately are predicted to get worse. Without data to help us identify struggling learners in need of extra support, too many students will pay the price. As Churchill concludes, “[S]tudents are no less in need of an excellent education than they were before the health crisis struck. To understand where students stand—and to offer help if necessary—parents and communities need the information yielded by state assessments.”

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