Educational Assessment and the Pandemic: What Have We Learned?

Reflecting on the Enduring Lessons From COVID-19

A year ago the pandemic changed everything, including the way we think about educational assessment. Although COVID-19 was well on its way to becoming a global pandemic in early 2020, it wasn’t until the second week of March that I, like many Americans, realized the full scale of the impact.  Then, the pandemic suddenly became one of those rare things that I never thought about until it was the only thing I thought about.   

It’s hard to think of anything untouched by the pandemic. Looking back, my thoughts first turn to the heartbreak of those who suffered lost loved ones or experienced economic hardship. But there’s also been some bright spots, such as the heroism of health care and other essential workers. Moreover, it’s been encouraging to see new forms of innovation emerge during the pandemic. This innovation ranged from the most consequential, such as the rapid development and deployment of vaccines, to the trivial, such as cardboard cutouts occupying seats at sporting events.  

Reflecting on these innovations, it’s worth asking: what are the enduring lessons for educational assessment, specifically the ways that we approach large-scale state assessment?  Indeed, I do think we learned much that has the potential to improve practice long after the pandemic is history. Here are my top three.  

An Emphasis on Measuring More of what Matters 

In spring 2020, there was little debate about whether end-of-year summative assessment could or should be administered. As schools and communities worked to cope with the onset of the pandemic, state tests were swiftly suspended. It was the right thing to do. Without assessment data, state leaders were forced to turn to new sources of information to understand and address the impact of the pandemic, especially on the most vulnerable students. In most cases, the priority shifted to gathering information on the conditions and factors that influence opportunity to learn. States are developing new data collection and reporting initiatives to track factors such as learning models, attendance, access to technology, and much more. Some states have developed mechanisms to publicly share this information such as Connecticut and New Jersey and have deployed resources to help swiftly meet needs such as in Mississippi.  

I hope these data collection initiatives will not only remain in place after the pandemic but will improve and expand in the coming years. When the ability to collect and report information on academic achievement with state testing resumes, data on conditions for learning will enhance our ability to interpret and use the test scores more effectively to support schools and students.  

A Renewed Focus on Assessment Literacy   

Broadly, enhancing assessment literacy refers to initiatives designed to improve assessment practices at the district, school, and classroom levels. Assessment literacy is certainly not a new concept. But it has been encouraging to witness a new focus on assessment literacy given the challenges of administering large-scale, standardized assessments. A renewed focus on improving assessment at the local level is good news because state summative assessments, which tend to draw a disproportionate share of the attention, are just one small part of a comprehensive and balanced assessment system

What are some promising initiatives? My colleagues at the Center have developed some amazing resources to help such as the Classroom Assessment Learning Modules, which are in use in several states. Other great examples can be found in the Virginia Department of Education’s collection of classroom assessment resources: Just in Time Quick Checks, or Wisconsin’s Assessment and Data Literacy E-Learning Series. Additionally, the National Council for Measurement in Education (NCME) launched a new website last summer with resources devoted to Formative Assessment for Classroom Teachers.  

I’m optimistic these and other promising practices will endure after the pandemic. That focus on improving assessment at the local level will represent an important step toward nudging assessment systems back into balance. 

A Commitment to Working Better Together 

The final lesson I’ll suggest deals with the way assessment professionals work.  

Most state assessment programs are guided by a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), which is a group of independent, expert advisors who typically meet with state assessment staff and their assessment contractors a few times annually to review information about the program and suggest improvements. I’m on several state TACs myself. It’s rewarding work, but let’s face it – the system doesn’t lend itself to rapid innovation.  

Once the pandemic hit, these former in-person TAC meetings switched to remote meetings. However, I’m pleased to note that the format, frequency, and scope of these meetings didn’t stay the same. Many TACs are now meeting more often for shorter but more focused discussions. The new approach makes it easier to collaborate with a wider range of experts, such as by having a specialist in automated scoring or English language proficiency join for a specific session. These more timely, focused meetings with increased collaboration is a win for assessment programs.  

The improvements in collaboration extend beyond TAC meetings. Professional organizations like NCME and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) have scheduled numerous online convenings during the pandemic to discuss important assessment topics. Here at the Center, we did the same. We switched our annual fall RILS conference to a series of webinars and were thrilled to see participation far exceed prior levels of in-person attendance. 

Sure, some topics are better addressed in person, by people gathered together around a whiteboard. And, frankly, I miss seeing my colleagues in person. But I hope after the pandemic is over we’ll blend the best of in-person and remote collaboration to create a more nimble and inclusive way of working better together that will be friendlier to innovation.     

The End of the Beginning

I certainly don’t know when the pandemic will be effectively behind us. Recently, I heard a guest on a podcast reflect, “it may not be the beginning of the end, but it’s the end of the beginning.”  I think that’s where we are with assessment as well. We’re likely not on the verge of a brave new frontier with respect to the way we conduct the business of assessment. Nor do I think we’re poised to return to business as usual. I expect the lessons of the pandemic should help us set aside practices that have likely held the field back and embrace new practices that will help us move toward a brighter future.