Americans have never loved testing, whether it’s at the Department of Motor Vehicles, the hospital, or in geometry class. But now, as the country grapples with its worst public health crisis in at least a generation, Americans are getting a crash course in the importance of tests and the data they produce. The United States’ slow pace of coronavirus testing is making it harder for public health officials to identify new outbreak hotspots and formulate a targeted response.

Tests for COVID-19 and tests assessing (for instance) fourth graders’ math skills bear little in common, of course, but they serve a similar purpose. Data collection is the first step toward recognizing and addressing any large-scale public policy problem, and tests provide standards and benchmarks that make that collection possible.

Academic Achievement Data At Risk?

And as it turns out, the lack of available COVID-19 tests appears likely to interfere with academic testing across the country. New guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make it clear that the public health case for school closures is strong. As such, it appears that students in communities across the country will be out of class for weeks—or even months—as the country tries to “flatten the curve” on the novel coronavirus outbreak.

This disruption is likely to affect how states and school districts implement federal K–12 education policies—most notably, the country’s math and literacy assessment mandate. Federal law requires all states to assess students in math and reading each year, from third to eighth grade, and at least once in high school. These tests are customarily administered near the end of the school year—in the spring. As school closures stretch into April, May, or beyond, the U.S. Department of Education is signalling that it will give states broad leeway to suspend, delay, or even cancel the administration of these tests.

This is an appropriate stance at this stage in a national public health crisis. Students, educators, schools, and states deserve flexibility, and it’s critical that they don’t let compliance with testing mandates (or any other consideration) nudge them to rush schools back open before the danger has passed.

But policymakers should also be thinking ahead. The testing mandates provide critical information on students’ and schools’ academic progress, as well as critical civil rights protections for historically underserved and marginalized groups. As the NAACP put it in a resolution several years ago, “without meaningful assessments of student learning, neither the parents nor the teachers will know whether individual students are receiving the education they need and deserve.”

More pressingly, in a public education system prone to allocating educational opportunities inequitably, often leaving communities of color and low-income communities under-resourced, academic assessments have historically been key tools for advancing public transparency and accountability. Without standardized benchmarks for measuring student achievement, students from historically marginalized communities often receive fewer and lower-quality educational resources. Public data on students’ academic progress can force policymakers to attend to these inequities.

Protecting Public Accountability Amidst a Pandemic

How can the valuable functions of testing be protected during the global health crisis? In most American communities, it simply won’t be feasible to administer these assessments in the spring. So, in addition to granting schools assessment flexibility, the Department of Education should consider setting clear national expectations for how—and when—schools will instead run the tests.

Any meaningful solution will need to maintain the basic civil rights protections implicit in the federal government’s annual testing mandate. That is, it would need to ensure that as many students as possible are able to take the assessments at roughly the same time.

One option: the department could work with Congress to secure funding that would allow schools to open briefly during the summer to administer the assessments—or to launch the 2020–21 school year a week earlier to accommodate additional testing. Each of these paths would present significant logistical challenges. Schools would have to remain accessible and open during periods of the year when they would not customarily be open. This would not only necessitate shifts in operations (for example, how and when classroom equipment could be boxed up and campuses closed down for summer holidays, whether climate controls would be available in regions where schools are rarely open in hot weather, and the like), but also cause problems for families and staff who may not be willing or able to adjust their annual working schedules around shifts in the academic calendar.

Another option: the department could require schools to administer this year’s math and literacy assessments in the fall of 2020. This would avoid disrupting public expectations about school start dates and the significant complications of preparing school staff and buildings to work outside of the normal academic calendar. However, those benefits come at the cost of days-to-weeks of lost instructional time at the beginning of the 2020–21 school year.

It bears noting that, whenever they are performed, this year’s academic assessments will likely deliver weaker results than usual, given that students will have missed weeks to months of instructional time. Since data from these assessments serve as the backbone of states’ systems of evaluating schools’ effectiveness, state and federal policymakers should significantly discount this year’s test scores in rating schools and in applying any possible interventions prescribed by state school accountability systems. Put bluntly, tests this year should be graded within this context; that is, more weight should be given to how schools compare with each other rather than how they did relative to the previous year. It’s not fair to hold schools “accountable” for lower academic performance when any dips are likely related to an unprecedented loss of instructional time. Even if tests are eventually administered (in the summer or fall), students will likely perform worse simply by virtue of having spent less time engaged in daily and weekly academic work.

Even if states make modifications to school accountability systems, student achievement data from these assessments shouldn’t be lost to the outbreak. These data protect the civil rights of historically underserved students. They’re also important for researchers studying the effectiveness of different schools, educational models, funding structures, and more. There may be other ways to administer the 2019–20 academic assessments in spite of widespread school closures. However policymakers decide to respond, it’s critical that they collect these data.