When Diane DeBacker worked as state education commissioner in Kansas, educators talked often and openly about their schools’ standardized test scores.

Then, in 2018, she moved to Seattle, where everything was different. 

“We didn’t stand in front of a board and talk about how our schools did,” said DeBacker, who worked as Seattle Public Schools’ top academic officer until earlier this month. “I was like, huh, we don’t lead with assessments in Seattle. That’s kind of comforting.”

Now, with the nation’s education system rocked by a pandemic that led to the pause of a broad swath of standardized tests, some education leaders say it’s time to rethink testing. They are questioning what the tests measure, and whether they should continue to be used as a primary way to determine success and failures in public schools.

More about this project

Losing ground? Some students are struggling in the pandemic. Others are learning to excel.

This is the third in a series of stories on pandemic-era learning. Read the first installment, on what we know about student achievement, at st.news/learningloss. Read the second, about a school district that’s using acceleration to prevent kids from sliding back, at st.news/highline.

Last year, for the first time since the No Child Left Behind Act passed, federal law didn’t require states to administer standardized tests, which means there’s no way to conclusively know how students are doing. 

Because a major national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), was suspended, this year’s state tests would provide the first quantitative answer — if they proceed. Some local and state leaders don’t want the state tests to resume this year, in part because they will be challenging to administer remotely. It’ll be up to the Biden administration to decide.

To some, like DeBacker, the pause provides an opportunity to rethink the way we turn the lessons students learn into numbers on spreadsheets. Tests have evolved since their introduction to federal policy: They’re more nuanced, with providers hiring experts to examine their cultural competence.

But at the end of the day, they’re still looking at performance on a specific set of subjects.

“Having so many states say we’re just not going to do those tests … is telling,” said Bernadette Merikle, executive director of the Community Center for Education Results, a nonprofit that formed after seven South King County school districts created a partnership to boost learning and share expertise.

A common critique of standardized testing goes like this: Tests focus on one narrow aspect of learning and don’t always match other signs of success. And, amid a year of racial reckoning, many are questioning how effectively tests reward the specific kinds of intelligence that many students of color often bring to the table, like survival skills and storytelling. 

But reinventing testing is tricky. For a test to be effective, it needs to provide specific information about an individual student’s performance. It must also be consistent enough to be rolled up and compared, from Tukwila to Walla Walla. 

Chris Reykdal, state schools superintendent, said that instead of state tests, he wants to see an amped-up national NAEP test, with more meaningful exams for students in classrooms.

Testing during a pandemic

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has long been an outlier in its attitude toward standardized testing. In 2013, nearly all teachers at Garfield High declined to administer a district test, calling it a waste of time. 

That sentiment animated various Facebook groups this year, when some parents pushed back after learning the district would try to measure student learning through districtwide midyear tests amid a pandemic. 

In December, SPS Superintendent Denise Juneau made the tests optional, citing those concerns. 

As DeBacker saw it, there were pros and cons: “There isn’t the appetite for it,” she said. She added it was the right thing to do, but it means that the district can’t precisely say how well students are doing. “To say whether or not we have learning loss, I can’t tell you,” she said. 

That’s a common sentiment outside Seattle. The federal government suspended the only national test that allows for comparisons between states, because of this year’s closures.

Reykdal wants the NAEP to be expanded to function as Washington’s statewide test. He questioned why the federal government would pause the national test but still count on states to administer their own tests, especially with so many students still at home.

Testing backlash

When standardized testing became a big part of federal policy, the rhetoric around No Child Left Behind framed low performance as punitive — leading district leaders, union heads and teachers to oppose testing in general. The rhetoric highlighted the problems of reducing students to a single test score. And even though policies softened, that feeling has not. 

Because of their perceived consequences, tests “have become a boogeyman for a whole host of issues,” said Laura Jimenez, director of standards and accountability at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning nonprofit. 

In Washington, there aren’t many serious consequences attached to tests for students. “We scared states to the point of them not wanting to innovate,” said Jimenez, who worked in the Obama administration.

Magda Chia, a former teacher, leads strategy for the Smarter Balanced Achievement Consortium, the group behind Washington’s statewide standardized tests. She said it is reasonable that people would question testing during a year of racial reckoning. Standardized tests have racist roots — following the Civil War, some Southern state governments used literacy tests to keep Black people out of the voting booth.

“The test didn’t change between last year and this year,” she said. “The context in which the country finds itself has definitely changed.” 

One argument for standardized testing: Without tests, there wouldn’t be quantitative evidence of structural racism in academics. Merikle questions that narrative. “You don’t have to have a test to see that a teacher never calls on the Black kid,” Merikle said. “Just walk the halls and look at discipline data and who gets referred for what. We don’t need a test to see that.”

Parents’ opinions are mixed. “Standardized tests are important because it’s the only way administrators can have a snapshot of how students are learning content,” said Charmane Marshall, a parent in Issaquah. “As long as it’s not used to track students.”

On the other hand, said Siobhan Ake, another Issaquah parent, “standardized testing is skewed,” because it doesn’t measure how kids can think differently.

The future of testing

Even people who work on tests now say they need to improve.

Jack Buckley, who ran the federal government’s education statistics arm and worked for the College Board before leading assessment and learning science at the gaming company Roblox, pointed to contrasts: “The assessments that persisted during the pandemic are the ones that deliver value,” he said. Advanced Placement tests give students college credits. “People jumped through hoops (to continue them) because people value it,” he said. 

Chris Minnich leads NWEA, a research-based nonprofit that administers the MAP test. NWEA was in the news this fall for its report on pandemic-era learning, as measured by the scores on the MAP, a test districts use to follow student growth. Minnich is working on a Louisiana pilot that uses exams that ask questions explicitly based on curriculum. “There is not as wide of an achievement gap if you test on what they’ve been taught, passages they’ve read,” he said. 

In places like Maine, Nebraska, Alabama and Georgia, he’s looking into replacing the intense end-of-year-tests with shorter exams given across the year. 

One alternative: A “portfolio model,” in which educators look at students’ work over time. But that’s hard at a systemic level, because the results depend on human judgment.

In Bellevue, administrators are seeking to paint a broader picture. The big tests aren’t going away soon, said Eva Collins, deputy superintendent for student academic performance and instructional leadership. “We’re looking at what else do kids know and are able to do, and how can we show that through performance tasks?” 

Merikle has ideas for simplifying things. “When you’re in right relationship with the parent, you understand what it is that the parent wants,” Merikle said.

And Merikle is thinking about an alternative form of accountability: family power. Parents can say they’re not showing up on the day when schools count their districtwide attendance until they diversify their teacher force or evaluate the system. 

“If you go to Target and buy something and it doesn’t work, it is on you to start that process to get reparations and make it right?” Merikle said. “For our students sitting in classes thinking this doesn’t represent me, I’m bored, I don’t want to be here, it is on them to say I’m not coming to this class anymore.”