The Case Against 2021 Statewide Spring Assessments
Much has been written this year about student academic progress during the pandemic since schools were closed in March 2020. I have not read one report disputing that in-person instruction for our students is the most effective in advancing learning and addressing their social-emotional health. School leaders throughout the nation continue to advance student learning in a mix of fully remote, hybrid, and in-person learning programs depending on the community assessment of disease prevalence by health departments and the availability of school staff to teach pupils in person. Recent Center for Disease Control guidance indicates that in-person schooling can resume safely with masks, social distancing and other strategies, and vaccination of teachers, while important, is not a prerequisite for reopening. This report has fueled the debate about the safety of the school environment for students and staff and leaves the possibility of widespread in-school instruction this academic year in limbo.
Legislators and others have expressed concern about insufficient student learning progress during the past eleven months of pandemic schooling. Many have suggested that an assessment be conducted for all students to determine individual “learning loss” during this period. In January, the New Jersey Department of Education announced the 2021 schedule for spring standardized assessments that were cancelled last year. The announcement received great opposition to renewing the testing with opponents (including NJASA) strongly suggesting that such an assessment is well-intended but ill-advised. In response, the New Jersey Department of Education announced on February 12 that “To further explore options, including flexibilities regarding the use of statewide assessment data in federal accountability – and to ease the burden of preparing for and administering assessments while these options evolve – the NJDOE is postponing the planned start date of all assessments and plans to begin statewide assessment administration no earlier than April 5, 2021.” I joined my counterparts at NJEA and NJPSA to issue a statement supporting the delay but noting “Nonetheless, we remain steadfast in our opposition to any statewide standardized testing this year in light of the conditions our students have faced for the last 11 months.”
Why do we insist on a waiver of the assessments? Let us examine a few reasons.
- How will students benefit from the assessment?
Spring assessments serve no diagnostic purpose supporting student learning. They are summative assessments used for accountability. Results come too late in the academic year to be useful. School personnel have sufficient measures of student progress to determine the degree to which students are achieving state standards and can provide a summary if needed. Instructionally grounded assessments that guide student learning in real time offer the most benefit, not global summative assessments that gauge the universe of instructional topics. We question how spring assessments support student emotional and social well-being particularly at this time when we increasingly hear students report the increased stress they are experiencing.
- Are the assessments an effective use of allocated learning time?
Educators need to maximize learning in this pandemic period of lost instructional time and not exacerbate the problem by using that which is available to administer standardized assessments that do not guide learning.
- Is test administration feasible or valid during this period of variable learning schedules?
Remote and hybrid learning programs offer the challenge of conducting assessments in the home environment and raise the question of privacy. There is great doubt that a suitable testing environment without distractions can be created in all homes where testing will occur. Equally a concern is the reliability of assessments conducted on-line in student homes compared to in-school administration. The practicality of home administration is dubious given the need for security, reliable connectivity, and access in homes where there is family demand for the same resources.
- Do state officials need the results for accountability?
The question of test reliability given current patterns of schooling casts additional doubt on the valid use of the assessments for school and district accountability. Governor Murphy and his education team have already waived assessments (standardized or portfolio) for this year’s high school graduation requirements and the use of Student Growth Objectives in educator evaluation. This is a reasonable response to the current abnormal school learning environment. We do not need more testing to tell us what we already know about school, or even individual, performance that cannot be gleaned from educator analysis and 2019 assessment results.
NJASA members wish to support their students to the greatest degree possible during this difficult time. Here is what they need to accomplish that goal:
√ Advocacy by Governor Murphy and Commissioner Allen-McMillan in immediately applying to the federal Department of Education for a waiver of 2021 standardized assessments.
√ Collaboration by New Jersey Department of Education officials in developing an updated “Road Back” plan that acknowledges current circumstances changed from those at the beginning of pandemic schooling including a plan for school reopening in September which addresses assessment of student progress and instructional program planning.
√ Clear New Jersey Department of Health requirements for social distancing and classroom ventilation to be included in the renewed “Road Back” plan.
√ Updated New Jersey Department of Health Covid-19 school reporting that coincides with the recently released Centers for Disease Control guidance.
NJASA members stand ready to assist Commissioner Allen-McMillan and her staff in this important work as we travel the “Road Back.”
Richard G. Bozza, Ed.D.
NJASA Executive Director
At the time of publication, the NJDOE announced its intention to file for a federal waiver of spring assessment requirements. Check the NJDOE broadcast.