Put Down Your Number Two Pencils: Canceled by COVID-19 for 2020, Standardized Testing Continues to Be Rethought by Educators

By Sean Slone, CSG Senior Policy Analyst

With the closing of schools across the country this spring due to the coronavirus and stay-at-home orders in some places, states have had to grapple with the impact on what is normally a busy season for standardized testing, the activity that drives assessment and accountability systems nationwide, helps guide students to college and careers and generates the data that is used at the state and federal levels to target funding decisions and shape education policy.

Announcing what was an initial three-week closure of schools in early March, which was supposed to fall in the middle of mandated standardized testing, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine told reporters, “If we can’t have testing this year, we will not have testing this year. The world will not come to an end.”

Since standardized tests are required by federal law, states were required to seek federal permission to suspend or cancel tests. On March 12, the U.S. Department of Education said due to the extraordinary circumstance presented by the coronavirus, they would consider targeted waivers from federal testing requirements. Most states, the District of Columbia, the Bureau of Indian Education and Puerto Rico sought and were granted initial approval of testing waivers. Then on March 20, the department announced a broad waiver process that will allow states to bypass all testing requirements for the current academic year.

A recent policy document from the department notes that since “assessments provide important information to parents, educators and the public about how well students are doing at mastering a state’s content for each tested grade and subject,” they don’t normally grant statewide waivers of assessment requirements under the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965. The COVID-19 crisis however presented extraordinary circumstances.

That’s not to say there haven’t been exceptions made in the past when states want to seek a different path on assessment and accountability in order to make way for education and testing reforms, as members of the CSG Future of Work National Task Force and its Workforce of Tomorrow Subcommittee have heard about over the past year.

Efforts are also underway by some academic institutions, states and workforce initiatives to deemphasize or redefine the importance of standardized test scores as a leading indicator of student achievement and college and career readiness.

State and federal education officials will likely want to study what a year of lost testing means for accountability systems, students, educators, school districts, college admissions, education funding and a host of other impacted areas. But it will also be interesting to watch what the year of canceled testing might mean for the trend toward reduced or redefined testing going forward.

Innovative Assessment Underway

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 allowed states to seek waivers from testing in order to experiment with innovative methods of assessment. New Hampshire received a waiver in 2014. The pilot program was extended under the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 and four states (Georgia, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina) received initial federal approval to participate in the program. Last October, more states were invited to join them.

New Hampshire, which has been transitioning some of its school districts to a competency-based education model, has used the freedom to develop the Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) system, which gages student proficiency by combining scores from locally administered and common performance tasks that are more personalized to the student. Their expressed goal for the system is to create assessment opportunities that “allow students to gain and demonstrate their knowledge and skills at a depth of understanding that will transfer beyond K-12 education to success in careers and college.”

During the CSG National Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, last December, members of CSG’s Workforce of Tomorrow Subcommittee, part of the Future of Work National Task Force, heard about the approach that New Hampshire schools are taking from Michael Berry, a principal at White Mountains Regional High School.

“We have one test at the high school level,” he said. “We take the SAT. That’s a state-mandated test and that’s the only test that we kind of have to care about.”

Berry said that has freed up his state and his school to reorient its curriculum around career readiness.

“What we’ve focused on that I think makes us kind of unique is adult learning,” he said. “We are deconstructing what the professional situation looks like for adults. If you think about White Mountains Regional High School, it’s small but it is a (place) where we value lifelong, professional learning.”

Berry said his school has translated that into a multi-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary environment, replacing science and math departments with humanities and STEAM divisions, where teachers aren’t tied to homerooms but work in collaborative spaces modeled after startup companies.

But Berry also noted that the school has continued to find value in devoting time on Thursdays to SAT test prep for high school juniors.

“You want to keep as many doors and options open,” he said. “And going through the process to say ‘here’s an expectation that we have. … We want to do well because we’re here. We’re spending all this time in public school. … And we want you to value that process … (of) a one-day appointment (when) we want to do our very best.”

Colleges and Universities Reassess Standardized Testing

Even as states have been experimenting with new kinds of assessment, some colleges and universities have been deemphasizing two of the oldest testing standbys—the SAT and ACT—as requirements for application and admission.

Bellarmine University, a private university in Louisville, Kentucky, announced in February they’re implementing a “test-optional” policy for the 2021-22 academic year and applicants won’t need to submit their standardized test scores.

Indiana University in Bloomington has also announced a test-optional policy, joining more than 1,000 public and private colleges and universities around the country that allow students to choose whether their ACT and/or SAT test scores will be considered as part of their admission review.

“While standardized tests like the SAT and ACT can, in combination with high school grades, be excellent predictors of academic success for many students, helping them to stand out in a sea of applications, those tests are not reflective of some students’ academic promise,” wrote David Johnson, vice provost for enrollment management at IU in a recent op-ed for the publication Inside Higher Ed. “Test-optional admissions allows students to decide how best to tell their academic story, by choosing whether to have their test scores included in the admissions review. This policy provides a new opportunity for students who have excelled, both personally and academically, to stand out in their own way, regardless of their performance on a standardized test, and helps address the systemic barriers that impact some of our most marginalized students.”

Just last month (in March), regents at the University of California were also debating whether to drop SAT and ACT test scores as an admission requirement, after receiving conflicting analysis in a couple of recent research papers, The Los Angeles Times reported.

The University of North Carolina system was said to be considering admissions changes to emphasize a student’s GPA as a better predictor of student success even before the COVID-19 crisis forced the cancellation and postponement of SAT and ACT tests, prompting university officials to establish new admissions requirements for students enrolling for the Fall 2020 semester.

Additional changes are likely under discussion in college and university boardrooms around the country as a result of the cancellation of spring testing season.

As school districts, higher education institutions and testing companies look to the future, online assessment options will likely become an important consideration as they seek to prepare should the nation ever face a situation like this one again.

Defining Students By More Than a Test

As part of its ongoing research, the CSG Workforce of Tomorrow Subcommittee is also examining various initiatives to allow students to maintain a record of the skills and competencies they achieve in a format that makes sense for college admissions offices and employers. One of those is the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), an effort to create a new kind of high school transcript, that doesn’t emphasize grades or GPAs or test scores. The MTC worked with four pilot high schools during the now largely truncated 2019-2020 school year to have students submit college applications with the new transcript.

“You now have a digital, interactive transcript where students get credit for mastery, where they typically have cross-disciplinary credits and they will get credit in most of our schools for skills beyond the traditional academic knowledge,” said Stacy Caldwell, CEO for the consortium during a February interview. “What we want to show in our transcript is the actual work that the student has done. We want to show the credits that they’ve achieved. What we are working hard to do is say ‘hey, let’s not let that get reduced into a single number because that doesn’t really fit the model of what we’re trying to support in terms of deeper learning.’”

Caldwell said she expected over 80 colleges to receive the new transcripts this year and initial conversations with the institutions have found them ready to engage with the new model.

“Colleges are accepting this and when you get a chance to spend 30 minutes with the admissions team, they really quickly get the value of why this gives a richer picture of the student and more information for them to utilize frankly in both the admissions cycle but also in the ways they think about supporting students,” she said.

Future of Standardized Testing

But some of those involved in the testing industry say it’s important that standardized testing not be thought of as an enemy to either education and assessment innovation or student and career-focused transcripts. Once schools are finally able to get back to testing, educators and policymakers may need to engage in a conversation about how to best deploy the rich data those tests can yield in the future.   

“We understand that individuals are very concerned that either themselves or their children are being defined as a single number,” said Mary LeFebvre, principal research scientist for workforce policy at ACT, a private sector partner working with CSG’s Future of Work Task Force. “We have been trying at least since I’ve been with (ACT) for the last nine years to really provide more of a nuanced message to policymakers, whether that be through a state department of education or at the local level about how to appropriately use a tool like a standardized assessment to make better policy decisions. … We need to become more nuanced with our policy and not use it as a way to just provide a stick but to also provide opportunity and flexibility at a local level about how to achieve … goals.”

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