For most of the past two years, there’s been significant discussion of the pandemic’s inequitable impacts on students’ academic achievement—of the learning that these students “lost” to the crisis. In particular, there is growing evidence that historically marginalized students were badly served by a wide range of pandemic learning approaches. But we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that—years after the pandemic shuttered many schools—we’ve also lost a lot of information about students’ academic achievement.
In many places, federally mandated math and literacy assessments were not administered—or, when they were, many students were missing. A large number of English learners (ELs) did not take their federally mandated annual English language proficiency assessments. Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—known as “The Nation’s Report Card”—was disrupted. And that’s to say nothing of pandemic disruption of the additional assessments used by school districts around the country.
The federally mandated math and literacy tests that serve as the backbone of American education data have long been controversial, and the clamor to abandon them has gotten louder in recent years. This would be a mistake.
Now, more than ever, as policymakers chart a path forward for public education, it’s clear that the public deserves the fullest possible picture of the pandemic’s consequences for children—and the effects of school responses.
Civil rights groups have long looked to standardized academic benchmarks to provide transparency into and leverage against local and state inequities in public education. These kinds of external metrics make it possible to explain how the status quo in a particular community is objectively unfair—that, for instance, having schools serving predominantly Black and Brown children kept separate and underfunded compared to schools serving predominantly white children leads to unequal results. Throughout American history, the privileged have regularly used the absence of information on student outcomes to argue that families of color, English-learning families, Native Americans, and other historically marginalized groups are, in fact, getting the educational opportunities they need and deserve.
Data from standardized tests allow activists to define “adequate” funding and/or “appropriate” school and student performance, which can help reveal when a community is harboring inequitable gaps in school resources and quality. These data serve as a foundation for challenging state and local power dynamics, educator perceptions, and structural biases built into public education systems. To that end, it’s not an accident that results from these standardized tests often provide key data points in school funding lawsuits.
American history is rife with examples of civil rights abuses thriving in school systems in the absence of public transparency and accountability. For instance, in 2000, federal research on public oversight of schools found that states were struggling to gather student achievement data in ways that would allow them to effectively keep tabs on local educational inequities. That is, states had limited information that would allow them to track when historically marginalized communities were being left out of high-quality learning opportunities.
Indeed, in the early twentieth century, before federal education law required states to use standardized language assessments to identify English-learning students, schools would sometimes assign children with Spanish-origin surnames to separate, segregated schools and/or classrooms. Indeed, while No Child Left Behind largely addressed this issue in K–12 education, in 2019, administrators at an urban pre-K center breezily explained to me that they still assigned students to bilingual classrooms (or not) based on their surnames.
There are countless examples of inequities thriving in the absence of clear benchmarks and transparent data. For instance, when schools and districts rely on teacher recommendations, rather than tests, to determine children’s educational opportunities, they risk allowing racial, cultural, or linguistic biases determine which children will be able to take advanced coursework or exit language instruction programs for English learners.
This dynamic isn’t unique to education. Indeed, in the middle of the twentieth century, the United States passed laws requiring that we regularly gather air and water quality data—because we know the virtue of publicly visible information related to these public goods. We don’t assume that we could simply ask local industrial leaders and officials to assure us that they are taking adequate care of the environment. We, the public, require objective, standardized proof.
Testing debates often miss that standardized tests exist to provide the public with such proof. Critics often complain that many standardized tests are given too late in the academic year to help guide teachers’ instruction. This is absolutely true. These “summative” assessments are generally administered in the spring, with results rarely arriving until well into students’ summer vacation. By the time they are available to schools, most students are well on their way to new teachers in new grades.
But guiding teachers on individual or classroom instruction is not the purpose of these tests—they exist to give policymakers and the public information about the effectiveness of public schools. For U.S. public education—a system with a checkered history of treating historically marginalized children unfairly—standardized tests are a core element of public transparency and accountability. They are a verification mechanism to ensure that public institutions are, in fact, delivering the educational opportunities children and their families deserve. As a recent report from the Migration Policy Institute puts it, “[A]ssessments are one of the few transparent measures parents and stakeholders seeking to advance educational equity have to evaluate student growth and identify new or growing learning gaps that demand attention.”
Why Go Beyond Tests?
Arguing for the continuation of standardized tests isn’t to suggest that they are beyond critique. Indeed, research suggests that many assessments suffer from biases linked to students’ genders, races, cultures, languages, and other factors.
What’s more, in the current stage of pandemic schooling, data from standardized tests should be taken with a larger than usual grain of salt. Results from in-person standardized tests given now, with the pandemic receding, cannot be wholly compared with tests given to a smaller sample of students via a hybrid mix of in-person and virtual means over the past two school years, let alone with pre-pandemic benchmarks. In particular, accountability systems measuring growth in student achievement will take years to rebuild. It will be some time before these tests could credibly be used for any high-stakes decisions about schools’ effectiveness.
Why give them at all, then? Well, in part, it’s because standardized tests don’t need to be perfect to be better than nothing. And without some effort to gather objective data on school performance, the public will be stuck trusting local administrators and officials self-reporting on whether or not their schools are effectively and equitably supporting children of all backgrounds.
So while these tests aren’t the only metric we should use to measure how schools are performing, they’re still a critical part of that equation. Much of the heat in testing arguments comes from blunt triggers in accountability systems that link performance on standardized assessments to mandatory school overhauls or dismissal of educators. In this moment, as the country’s schools move from pandemic “response” to pandemic “recovery,” these sorts of debates are unhelpful. Right now, it is clear that high-stakes decisions about schools and staffing should not hinge on a single data tool about how schools are performing. But that doesn’t mean that the data generated by that tool are useless to gather.