Tests are Crucial to Measure Students’ Learning

Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos put the kibosh on pleas to stop meaningful assessments of student learning before the school year had even begun in many places.

Noting it was “the right call” to skip year-end tests during the chaos of this past spring, DeVos explained in a letter to chief state school officers that students couldn’t afford to miss another year of having their learning measured.

Statewide standardized tests, DeVos wrote, “are among the most reliable tools available to help us understand how children are performing in school.” They “can help inform personalized support to children based on their individual needs and provide transparency about their progress.” And most people recognize “that parents deserve to know how their children are performing, and that it should be no secret how a school’s performance as a whole compares to other schools.”

That’s exactly right. As she also noted, there is bipartisan support for standardized testing because both Republicans and Democrats agree we need an objective accounting of whether students are really learning, or simply being shuffled through the system.

They’re of particular importance for poor kids, minority kids, kids with special needs, and others who for decades simply weren’t learning at the rates their white and more affluent peers were. How do we know there’s an achievement gap? Because all kids, across a given state, have to take the same tests.

Maybe that’s why an opinion poll DeVos cited, by the Data Quality Campaign, showed 77% of parents wanted to see year-end tests return in spring 2021.

Only 48% of teachers surveyed, however, agreed. Which brings us to a different reaction to DeVos’ statement.

Richard Woods, Georgia’s state schools superintendent, wasted no time branding the decision “disappointing” and, going further, “a detriment to public education.”

He asked, “in a year when instructional time is so precious, why cut into it with high-stakes testing?”

That’s curious, considering Woods’ own agency told schools they don’t have to meet the usual standards for instructional time. As a result, some districts started their school years late without clear plans to make up the time. It’s also meant many students get just a few hours of instruction per day, and are losing more instructional time every week than the year-end test would take to administer.

Woods continued: “At a time when our economic outlook is still shaky and millions of dollars are having to be cut from our classrooms, why divert millions to high-stakes tests?”

As I’ve reported before, most districts have reserves on hand to offset state budget cuts, and federal emergency funding has also helped to close the gap. But let’s reverse the question: Why would Georgia taxpayers spend an amount approaching $20 billion on education this year, and then cheap out on the comparatively few dollars it would take to know if students learned anything?

Finally, there’s this from Woods: “Continuing to administer high-stakes tests during these unprecedented and uncertain times is, sadly, more about adults than the needs of students and teachers.”

That’s exactly backward. Students need to learn, and teachers need to know if students are learning. How do we know if that’s happening? By giving tests. And who benefits from not testing? The adults who want to shirk accountability.

You may have noticed that phrase “high-stakes tests” in each of those quotes. In all, Woods used the phrase nine times in his response to DeVos. But because learning growth is a key factor in accountability, the lack of a test earlier this year means we already didn’t measure growth in 2020 and can’t measure growth in 2021. That lowers the stakes. If no tests were to be given in 2021 as well, the same would already be true for 2022.

By the time we got to 2023, then, it would have been four years since Georgia had an objective, statewide measure of student learning and growth. Ask yourself: Who would that serve? Students?

Yeah, right.

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