With March Madness underway, students around the country will soon be taking their states’ standardized tests in English language arts, mathematics, and science. The results are going to help education policymakers address many critical questions as schools emerge from the pandemic.
I was an early skeptic of state testing in 2021, concerned that the disruptions to normal schooling in the pandemic-plagued 2020-21 school year would make it challenging to interpret any signal about student achievement through all the noise wrought by online learning, family health crises, and other Covid challenges.
I was wrong. As my organization has documented, the signal on learning loss was so loud it could be heard clearly through the cacophony of pandemic-related statistical distractions. Our analyses of nearly a dozen states’ test scores revealed score drops two-to-three-times greater than those for New Orleans students after Hurricane Katrina, with math results noticeably lower than reading scores. Measurement folks like me do not like converting test results into months of learning, but the deceleration of achievement by a half a year or more between 2019 and 2021 will require a level of learning improvement that we have rarely, if ever, seen at scale in the United States.
The 2022 results are going to be important for several reasons.
Testing conditions in 2021 weren’t ideal: participation rates were low enough in many states to make researchers nervous; school accountability systems had been suspended, perhaps reducing the motivation of students and schools to do as well as possible on standardized tests; and learning conditions varied considerably within and across states. Test scores that are as low as, or nearly as low as, the prior year’s results would confirm the severity of the pandemic’s impact on student learning.
Conversely, if 2022 scores somehow bounce back to 2019 levels, we would have to question the 2021 results. Hopefully, 2022 scores will rise somewhat. But since there were sharp score drops in almost every state and on a variety of tests the previous year, and given the continuing disruptions due to the Delta and Omicron waves, I’d be surprised if we see much more than slight average increases.
Because testing conditions are likely to be better and more uniform from school to school, district to district and state to state in 2022—but still not up to pre-Covid levels—states and testing companies will need to do careful analyses of test results to account for the still-challenging testing conditions, in the ways testing experts Damian Betebenner and Rich Wenning and Andrew Ho crafted strategies to responsibly compare 2021 test results to 2019 results.
[Read More: A Smart Role for State Standardized Testing in 2021]
It will also be important to communicate the 2022 results in ways that best serve the public interest. As the testing expert Nathan Dadey wrote recently, if scores ratchet up slightly in 2022, the headline could be “Schools Continue To Struggle: 2022 6th-graders Still Not Doing as Well as 2019 6th-Graders.” But it could also be “School Back on Track: 2022 6th Graders Doing Better Than 2021 6th Graders.”
Educators and policymakers deserve credit for helping students progress during the 2021-22 school year. But we must be honest about the size of the hill that students need to climb post-pandemic. State leaders need to navigate this tension with honesty and care.
Educators and others have long sought to give state assessments roles they’re not suited for. For instance, the tests are not nor have they ever been designed to improve instruction.
But well-designed, end-of-year statewide assessments are uniquely positioned to monitor educational trends over time. While companies that offer tests administered multiple times a year have been issuing reports on the effects of the pandemic, those interim assessments suffer from changing cohorts of tested students, uncertain administration conditions, and a lack of transparency about test quality.
In contrast, state assessments generally avoid these challenges as long as states test nearly all of their students, offering a dependable means of documenting state achievement trends. Critically, in the months and years ahead state assessments will shift from helping us understand the pandemic’s impact on student achievement to being an essential tool for monitoring the recovery efforts of states and districts.
Scott Marion is executive director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, a non-profit technical and policy consulting firm.