As Gov. Jay Inslee and state officials look ahead to reopen schools, the Washington Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) has yet to make a determination about how statewide testing will take place this academic year or how results will be used. In this time of uncertainty and unprecedented pressure on educators and students, the state should remove any stakes associated with these standardized tests and consider canceling the test administration all together.
States are required by federal law to administer standardized testing in grades three through eight and in high school but have flexibility over the use of test results. Last spring, the U.S. Department of Education waived state testing requirements for the 2019-20 school year due to the pandemic. At this point, it is not clear whether President-elect Joe Biden will relax federal mandates for state standardized testing, as was done last school year, and educators will not know about federal testing policies until well into the spring semester.
Washington does not need to wait for federal action to change how standardized test scores will be used. While states cannot formally cancel standardized testing without federal approval, several have reduced the number of tests and the stakes associated with the exams for both students and educators. For example, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia have reduced or eliminated the role of state testing for individual student course-passing determinations.
Texas recently announced that state testing will continue, and the state will require students to come to school and test despite rising rates of COVID-19. Citing concerns about the harmful effects of testing during the pandemic, a bipartisan group of legislators in Texas has advocated for an immediate halt to testing for the year.
The Washington State Board of Education, which oversees the state’s accountability framework, approved emergency rules last spring in response to the canceling of state tests and OSPI has provided guidance for 2020-21 on teacher and principal evaluation. The state has not made any announcement about the status of statewide tests for the 2020-21 school year.
Many decisions in education are about resource trade-offs. With the vast majority of courses being taught online, teachers have limited opportunities to provide direct instruction, interact with students or facilitate student discussion. Allocating this limited amount of instructional time to test preparation is not a good use of time or resources. The tests themselves are also expensive. The state spent at least $32 million on testing in 2015-16, and that figure includes only the money paid to contractors, not investments in district personnel time. That number is enough to hire hundreds of new school nurses, social workers or counselors. At a time when many staff members are stretched thin, that added support can make an important impact on students.
There are also serious equity concerns about state testing during a pandemic. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted students with disabilities, English learners, low-income students and students of color. Washington students have not had equal access to the types of individualized instruction needed to thrive. By moving ahead with state testing, state education leaders are setting many students up for failure, rather than using limited valuable time and money to provide additional supports.
Education leaders need data to drive decisions, and standardized tests can provide valuable insights particularly around academic progress that students and schools make over time. For example, research using standardized tests has transformed the way education leaders and advocates think about teacher hiring, development, retention and attrition. Measuring student learning helps researchers understand what works and for whom. But in some cases, testing tells us what we already know, and stakeholders often question the validity of standardized tests in the first place. In the pandemic, when students face unique challenges that may be invisible to researchers and state education leaders, the ability to draw comparisons of test scores over time is severely limited.
While some advocates may see value in returning to normal standardized testing procedures this spring, there are simply too many stressors currently weighing on teachers and students. The pandemic altered all aspects of life, and if there was ever a time to skip the state test, that time is now.