Summative State Assessments Can Wait!

May 08, 2020

Arguments Against Administering the Spring 2020 Summative State Assessments When Students Go Back to School

All states closed their schools in March and suspended or canceled annual state assessments. While the US Department of Education (USED) immediately waived state testing requirements for 2020, some states are contemplating the administration of their summative state assessments next fall; purportedly to help leaders and educators better understand and respond to the impact of school closures on student learning. Although this may seem appealing, these assessments are no better suited to informing instructional decisions than they have been in the past.

We urge states to resist the temptation to administer the foregone spring summative state assessments in fall. The return on this lofty investment will be minimal at best and potentially counterproductive.

Why Not to Administer the Summative State Assessment in the Fall

State and district leaders are working tirelessly to provide educators and students with resources that support instruction and continued learning while schools are closed. While these efforts are to be applauded, it is important to acknowledge that the resources selected for use, how they are used, and the policies/practices put in place to support implementation will vary across districts and schools in ways that differentially impact student learning. There are also student-specific differences that will influence how individuals respond and adapt to these new learning environments. For example:

District and School Differences

  • Local requirements for student participation and attendance (e.g., voluntary vs. required).
  • Availability and effectiveness of synchronous and asynchronous instruction.
  • Beliefs regarding the focus and target of instruction for the remainder of the school year (e.g., practice/strengthen previously taught skills vs. teach new grade-level skills).
  • Beliefs and practices around grading and promotion.
  • Ability to provide students with online educational resources, instruction, and assessment.
  • Ability to feed students in need while they are at home.

Student Differences

  • Access to and familiarity with required technology or instructional supports (e.g., for students with disabilities or having an IEP).
  • Individual learning styles and preferences, including students with already identified special learning needs.
  • Motivation under conditions of decreased accountability.
  • Availability and role of the parent and home environment in supporting student learning.
  • Level of insecurity: financial, physical, emotional, and food.

In light of these differences, students’ readiness for the next course or grade in the Fall of 2020 will likely vary more than would typically be the case. To address this challenge, educators will need information that helps them accurately and efficiently diagnose the differential needs of students and respond in a manner that aligns with their school’s instructional strategy.

For a variety of reasons, the state summative assessment is not a good solution for meeting this information need. We outline three critical reasons related to the intended purpose of the state assessment, the utility, or lack thereof, of administering it in the fall, and the likely negative unintended consequences.

Grain Size of Reported Scores

State summative assessments are carefully designed to produce reliable measures of academic achievement that can be used to inform school accountability. To support this use, test developers strategically sample from the content to represent “the breadth and depth” of the state’s grade-level standards as required by federal peer review. The end result is typically a long test (2-3 hours per content area) that uses multiple item types/tasks that are exclusively aligned to grade-level standards. While sub-scores are often produced and reported, they are less reliable than total scores and far too broad to inform instructional decisions.

In order to effectively support instruction, educators will need more granular and timely information than what is afforded by the state summative assessment. For example, in order to pinpoint what students know and can do prior to a focused unit of instruction, an assessment that evaluates pre-requisite skills may be required. Many of our colleagues have written about what’s necessary for assessments to support learning including these posts by Scott Marion and Brian Gong. In addition, recent posts by Juan D’Brot and Michelle Boyer discuss the need to shift the focus from state summative assessments to local assessments that target educators’ specific information needs.

Time and Resources Required for Participation

If and when students return to school in the Fall of 2020, they will need time to catch up with lost learning and lost social interactions, all while trying to adapt to the “new normal”. This adjustment will require patience and understanding on the part of school leaders despite the pressing need to make up for lost time. Starting the year with a multi-day summative assessment event is not only stressful for students and educators, but it requires time and resources that would be better spent on instruction, planning, and student engagement.

Furthermore, asking kids to start the school year taking a long test that stakeholders know to be expensive and of limited instructional utility could enflame existing negative perceptions of the state summative assessment.

Potential for Misuse and Misinterpretation of Results

Summative state assessments are designed to provide information about student performance at the end of a grade or course that can be used to make inferences about student proficiency (i.e., based on performance-level descriptors) or predict readiness to perform at the next grade level.

While the aforementioned district, school, and student differences can impact the results of any assessment in unpredictable ways, they are particularly problematic for state summative assessments. The relative impact of these factors is unknown and will differ among students, so using results from the state test in the way they are intended and normally used is not appropriate. Unfortunately, if state assessment results are provided, there is a high likelihood they will be misinterpreted and misused to classify students and/or improperly identify specific learning needs.

Conclusion – Administer the Right Assessments

There are currently no compelling reasons to administer state summative assessments when students return to school. State and district resources will be better spent supporting local assessment practices that can more precisely identify individual learning needs and provide information consistent with a school’s instructional strategy for the 2020-2021 school year.