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Answer Sheet: Big Questions About the 2021 Standardized Test Scores

Millions of students took standardized tests this year during the coronavirus pandemic after the Biden administration determined that the testing must go after being suspended a year earlier as covid-19 cases began to grow across the country.

The annual spring testing season — marked by extensive test preparation that eats up days of instruction — has become a flash point in the two-decade-old school reform movement that has centered on using standardized tests to hold schools and teachers accountable. First under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and now under its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, public schools are required to give most students tests each year in math and English language arts.

Supporters of the testing say the scores are important to determine whether students are making progress — and Miguel Cardona said shortly before he was named education secretary in the Biden administration that the results this year could help teachers “target resources” to students who did poorly.

Critics have said that the results have no value to teachers because the scores come after the school year has ended and that they are not allowed to see test questions or know which ones their students got wrong. They also say test scores show what is already known: Students from poor families do worse than students from families with more resources.

In 2020, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos provided waivers from testing — and this year, numerous states asked the Biden administration for testing waivers too.

Now, 2021 test scores are being released by states, and nearly everywhere, scores are down, which is what you would expect when a pandemic forces schools to close for months on end and affects teaching and learning in classrooms that stayed open.

Here are some important questions to consider about the test scores and their value. It was written by Bob Schaeffer, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit group known as FairTest that works to end the misuse and abuse of standardized tests.


By Bob Schaeffer

Earlier this year, thousands of parents, educators and community leaders endorsed a call to suspend high-stakes standardized testing in America’s public schools because the results would not be valid, reliable or useful. Critics of testing have made that argument for years, but they seem especially relevant given that tests were being given during a pandemic that had upended education since spring 2020.

Nevertheless, testing advocates persuaded the Biden administration to require all states to administer standardized exams at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year. Officials claimed that the scores were necessary to see the impact of covid-19 on school closings — and they promised that the results would be used to allocate resources to students who most need additional academic help.

States are releasing their spring test scores, and . . . wait for it . . . the results are exactly as predicted.

Scores declined across the board, and historically underserved students fell further behind. So far, there’s little evidence demonstrating that data from this round of standardized exams is being used to address the pandemic’s expected impact, as testing advocates had promised.

It’s hard to find examples of states or cities targeting additional resources to schools serving the neediest students. Many companies marketing programs to deal with “learning loss” offer no independent data to validate their products.

Now it’s time to assess the assessors. Were spring 2021 exams really helpful in promoting academic quality and educational equity? Or was this just another politically driven “testing for the sake of testing” exercise?

To find out, education stakeholders should ask governors, superintendents, state legislative leaders, school board leaders and other policymakers questions like the following.

Test data quality, accuracy and scope

  • What did you learn from spring 2021 standardized exam results that you did not already know about pandemic impacts on student performance?
  • Did huge variability in spring 2021 test participation rates undermine the validity of the reported data?
  • What about the difference in results from in-person and remote testing?
  • Are you assessing the pandemic’s impact on student well-being using tools other than standardized tests, such as surveys of social and emotional needs?
  • How many hours of teaching and learning time were devoted to preparing for and administering spring 2021 standardized exams, as well as reviewing results?
  • What did this round of exams cost in terms of fees to test publishers and school personnel’s time?

Test data policy impact

  • Have any policies been changed or educational resources reallocated based on spring 2021 test scores?
  • How is your state or district relying on spring 2021 test data to target American Rescue Plan funds?
  • In what ways are districts and schools and teachers using spring 2021 test data to tailor teaching to individual students?

Test data-misuse prevention

  • What are you doing to prevent school-ranking firms and other ventures from misusing spring 2021 test results?
  • How are you vetting firms promoting programs they claim will address “learning loss” to ensure pandemic resources are not diverted to unaccountable corporations with no track record of success?

If public officials cannot provide detailed, fact-based responses to these questions, they need to reconsider failed strategies. Testing is not learning!

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.

Bob Schaeffer

Bob Schaeffer is executive director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. Previously, Schaeffer served as research director of the Massachus...