Update (3/30/20): On March 27, Governor Mike DeWine signed legislation waiving state assessment requirements for the 2019-20 school year.
Update (3/23/20): On March 22, Governor Mike DeWine stated his support for waiving state assessments for the 2019-20 school year. The state legislature is expected to pass a bill that would formally waive the exams for the year.
Governor Mike DeWine, along with other state leaders across the nation, have taken dramatic steps to slow the coronavirus pandemic, including shuttering schools. On March 12, the governor announced that all Ohio schools would close from March 17 through April 3 (though schools are encouraged to offer online instruction and/or provide take-home materials). So far, no decision has been made as to whether the closures will extend beyond April 3. Likely preparing for the worst, Governor DeWine recently acknowledged the possibility of closing schools for the rest of the school year.
Though surely a low priority in light of the health crisis, questions have arisen about what Ohio should do about state assessment and accountability for the year. In normal circumstances, exams are taken mostly in April, but the closures are likely to extend into that month if not beyond. Recognizing the extraordinary situation, the U.S. Department of Education has said it would approve one-year waivers in some circumstances to states seeking relief from testing requirements under federal law (a number of states have already made petitions).
How should Ohio navigate these uncharted waters? The answer likely depends on how long schools will remain physically closed. Let’s take a look at two of the most likely scenarios.
Scenario 1: Schools close for rest of the year
If schools are shut through June 2020 due to prolonged health concerns, there’d be no state testing, period. Without test data, it would be irresponsible for the state to release standard report cards for 2019-20, including overall and component grades.
Still, the state could publish, for information only, data against a few indicators. For high schools, the state could release graduation rates and other measures within the prepared for success component. Those data are all lagged—reflecting the classes of 2018 and 2019—and thus would not be affected by the closures. In elementary schools, Ohio could potentially calculate a modified version of the K-3 literacy component, which mostly looks at diagnostic testing results taken in the fall by Kindergarten to third grade students. (The calculations do, however, incorporate the spring third grade ELA test.) This leaves just middle schools without any current data should state exams be cancelled. All districts, of course, have elementary and high schools, and would thus have graduation and prepared for success data, as well as most elements of the K-3 literacy component.
Due to the lack of complete data, the state should refrain from using the results to inform any type of high-stakes decision such as charter school closure, academic distress commissions, EdChoice designation, and the like. Those types of accountability mechanisms should be suspended for the year.
Scenario 2: Schools open sometime before the end of June
It feels like it might take a miracle, but there’s always the possibility that the crisis abates and schools reopen. In this best-case scenario, Ohio could administer state exams—and it would also have the necessary data to compute all the components of the report card. Whether it should do so is debatable.
On the question of to test or not to test, there are pros and cons. In favor of cancelling tests even if schools open, one could argue that the exams won’t provide useful information about student or school performance after such a prolonged hiatus. There’s some truth to that: It’s almost certain, for example, that student proficiency rates would be systematically lower than in prior years due to the lost learning time. One could also assert that subjecting students to testing feels a bit tone-deaf after going through weeks of coronavirus misery. Last, some may argue that schools should spend these precious few weeks catching students up through intensive instruction, and that assessment can wait until either the fall or the next spring.
On the other hand, administering exams would allow educators and parents to gauge where exactly a student stands after an extended break from school. Some students will have made progress while learning at home; others will have regressed. Without an assessment, no one will know what happened. Moreover, because of the break, a larger-than-usual number of students may require significant academic intervention—remember, the need to achieve proficiency in English and math hasn’t changed—and the sooner that teachers and parents know the extent of the need, the better they can prepare. If, with federal support, schools were encouraged to offer summer interventions, the results could also be used to determine which students get priority. Should the state go in this direction, it would need to ensure that test results are returned to schools in a timely fashion, so that educators have time to use them to inform summer or fall instruction.
Given the magnitude of the health crisis, Ohio may well close schools through June. However, in the event that schools can open safely, my view is that the state should consider statewide assessment. Getting a handle on the academic situation of students would put educators in a better position to hit the ground running this fall. As for the use of the state exam data for report cards in this scenario, Ohio could report the results for information only, but not use them to assign ratings. Nor should they be used to determine consequences in 2019–20.
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My hope is that there would actually be state exams this year. This is not based on a heartless desire for testing in such trying times. Rather, it would mostly be a sign that things are, at last and perhaps miraculously, starting to return to normal.