Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that the Biden administration will not lift the federal requirement that public elementary and secondary schools administer state standardized tests this year. Well, sort of: The feds will allow numerous changes to how tests are given from previous years – they can be shorter, administered remotely, and states can apply for waivers from federal accountability measures, including for the share of students tested. So states will still have to test, but the conditions will be very different from previous years. (Note that last year the Trump administration waived all testing requirements.)
What good is this going to do?
For establishing trends, these tests will be largely useless. Unless the testing conditions are the same as in past years – which they clearly are not – we will not be able to tell the extent to which the results reflect changes in learning versus changes in the testing itself.
What about telling educators where their students stand as a result of COVID-19 disruptions? In this regard the testing might help, but if many students do not take the tests, or they do so in unprecedented remote conditions, again, what can be concluded about their learning versus the changing testing situation? Indeed, such tests might understate learning loss – what we are most worried about – by being easier than in the past.
Ironically, the federal mandate for uniform, high‐stakes testing – testing with concrete ramifications for schools – may have kneecapped the ability of tests to give us reliable information when we experience major disruptions, the times we arguably need good diagnostic data the most. Because it makes little sense to punish schools when the thing hurting achievement is outside of the schools, we drop the stakes and loosen conditions, and hence fundamentally change the testing so that results are unmoored from the past.
As my co‐authors and I argue in our recent paper Rightsizing Fed Ed, the federal government should ultimately end its testing mandate. But that would be a big change. More politically feasible in the short‐term would be to loosen the mandates, returning power to states and districts. Perhaps a good thing to do as soon as possible, which we did not specifically recommend, would be to end all stakes for such tests, so that when the going in the country gets tough, we can still get reasonably comparable results from year to year.