Ohio legislators recently introduced Senate Bill 358 to cancel all state testing scheduled for spring 2021, suspend report cards for the 2020–21 and 2021–22 school years, and extend so-called “safe harbor” provisions that shield schools from consequences tied to state ratings. The provision calling for the cancellation of state exams would only go into effect if the state receives an assessment waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. (Thus far, the department has signaled a reluctance to issue waivers for the coming spring.)
Given the uncertainties of the pandemic, some of the SB 358 provisions are reasonable. In a June report, my Fordham colleague Chad Aldis and I recommended that school ratings be withheld for 2020–21 (though not the year after). We also suggested that Ohio stop the practice of safe harbor and move permanently away from formal sanctions linked to report cards. But—in sharp contrast to SB 358—we also urged lawmakers to resume state assessments this year, a position that is consistent with other education groups and recently the Columbus Dispatch editorial board. Why the need to assess? Let’s review.
State assessments gauge where students stand against Ohio’s 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. To this end, Ohio has implemented rigorous academic standards that set forth the knowledge and skills that pupils are expected to learn by the end of each grade level. State assessments that are aligned to these standards gauge the extent to which students meet such expectations. 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.
Importantly, state assessments also encourage schools to adhere to state standards and help guard against lowered expectations. This purpose of testing is especially crucial as schools continue to rely on remote instruction during the pandemic. 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.
State assessments provide an “external audit” of proficiency that complements course grades and diagnostic tests. Some have argued that course grades and diagnostic tests provide all the information that’s needed to understand pupil performance. While grades and diagnostics are very important tools, they alone cannot offer a complete picture of student achievement. Course grades typically reflect non-academic factors, such as attendance or participation, and are subject to “grade inflation,” the harmful practice of assigning grades that overstate students’ actual mastery of the course material. Perhaps reflecting such inflation, surveys find that a vast majority of parents believe their kids are on-track, even though exam data indicate far fewer students meet proficiency targets. Diagnostic exams can help educators pinpoint specific areas where students struggle, but using them as substitutes for state assessments would create immense confusion for parents and communities. Does an 80 percent proficiency rate on the NWEA MAP test mean the same thing as an 80 percent proficiency rate on the iReady exam? A testing expert may know, but those who don’t work in education will be left scratching their heads.
In sum, state exams round out our view of student achievement. Unlike course grades, they offer an impartial, unfiltered assessment of proficiency. And unlike diagnostic tests, they provide comparable information that allows communities to see how their schools stack up against statewide averages and neighboring districts. As Ohioans undertake the hard work of supporting children’s academic recovery, they’ll need a full toolkit of information about pupil achievement—one that includes state assessment results.
Baseline state assessment data is essential to tracking progress moving forward. Speaking of recovery, it will be an immense undertaking to support the thousands of students who have struggled to learn during the pandemic. It’s vital that baseline information is gathered sooner rather than later. 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, as we’d be 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. Analysts are already raising alarms about widening achievement gaps due to the pandemic. Without reliable value-added data, we won’t be able to identify and learn from high-poverty schools that are helping low-income and minority students make progress in the midst of the pandemic.
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The past year has presented a host of challenges to Ohio’s parents and educators. But students 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. Giving schools a reprieve from some accountability measures is the right thing to do, but cancelling state exams again goes too far.