Assessments should be next in line for a long-needed overhaul

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced school districts and policymakers to innovate at warp speed when it comes to the use of technology and personalized learning in education, community outreach, development of wraparound services and more. That same flexibility and openness to change should be applied to student assessments, according to a new report.

The report, Educational Assessments in the COVID-19 Era and Beyond, is based on an online roundtable convened by the National Academy of Education that featured scholars, policy leaders and educators discussing the “how” and “why” of testing in both  the special circumstances of 2021 and beyond.

Panelists concluded that while most people agree that critical data is needed to measure academic knowledge, there are a number of issues with assessments — including how tests are administered and how scores are used — that continue to afflict education systems and students.

“Assessments, if used properly, can help us to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come,” according to authors of the report. “If used improperly, assessments may waste precious instructional time and resources, worsen inequities, reinforce misperceptions as to sources of inequity, and impede sound education policy.”

The roundtable produced several common themes, researchers found. For instance, if local educational agencies administer 2021 summative assessments, panelists noted caveats to keep in mind regarding test administration, interpretation, and intended and unintended uses of test results.

As an example, the report notes that assessments must be appropriately contextualized for valid and reliable interpretations and uses of results.  It must be understood how much of the curriculum was covered, how the material was delivered (in person, remotely, synchronous or asynchronous), as well as the composition of students’ learning environments. It is essentially guaranteed that learning will have been impacted for students who were engaging in remote learning while caring for younger siblings, suffering from food insecurity, struggling socially and emotionally, sharing limited technology devices, unable to access reliable WiFi or learning in abusive environments.

Future assessments and recommendations

Looking beyond 2020–21 end-of-year assessments, researchers determined it will be critical that policymakers take the time to adapt and ensure that assessment systems are balanced and equitable, assessment literacy is expanded and accountability is reframed from a deficit lens to an improvement perspective.

Specific among the panelists’ recommendations for change were considerations including:

  • Implementing equitable educational assessments. An equitable educational assessment system is not only accurate and valid, but also sensitive to the characteristics of different student groups being assessed. Where appropriate, assessments should reflect diversity in the design and delivery of the assessment and the reporting of assessment results.
  • Reframe test-based accountability from a deficit lens to an improvement perspective. Federal accountability requires the labeling of schools and negative consequences and, as a result, accountability is now viewed as a punishment or a sanction rather than an opportunity to boost outcomes. Assessment and accompanying accountability should lead to improving schools and districts’ ability to provide equitable opportunities to learn and to help students to take maximal advantage of those opportunities.
  • Develop and implement culturally and racially responsive, curriculum-embedded, balanced assessment systems. Assessments are a critical part of the educational system and need to be as free as possible from racial and cultural biases. Equitable educational assessments requires tests that are fair, accurate and valid. Fair assessments are sensitive to the characteristics of different groups being assessed and thereby, where appropriate, reflect diversity in the design and delivery of the assessment and the reporting of assessment results.
  • Expand assessment literacy. Assessments are only useful if those who could benefit from the information can access, interpret and use the information to improve teaching and learning. Teachers, administrators, parents and students should be educated in how to interpret and use assessments to further teaching and learning and create equitable educational opportunities. For teachers, this may result in professional development and in-service opportunities, while families must be seen as integral partners in using assessments to further learning.
  • Encourage innovation and flexibility. Ideally, systems of assessment serve to improve teaching and learning. To accomplish this, appropriate, mindful, and documented flexibility and innovation should be implemented to see what works.

Panelists noted that as a result of the pandemic, there will be a generation of children lacking benchmark assessments, or who have inconsistent measures impacted by the many variables detailed above that can significantly impede learning. However, they concluded, that only makes strong, useful assessments more valuable.

“COVID-19 implications will be felt for years, and we must continue to attempt to measure these implications on both academic and social and emotional learning and provide supports to address them,” according to the report. “We must be vigilant to monitor and address the COVID-19 legacy, particularly for our historically disadvantaged children.”