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What Will Standardized Testing Look Like in 2021?

The meaning of student data in an outlier year.

Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu via

This time last year educator inboxes and Zoom calls were flooded with the words “unprecedented” and “pivot.” This year? As Covid-19 vaccines are distributed around the nation and pressures mount to get students out of the house, “return to campus” is underway in most states.

According to data compiled by Education Week, as of March 15th, 2021, seven state governments have ordered at least some grade levels to return to in-person instruction. While the majority of states have no order in effect, most school districts are offering a hybrid model (a mixture of remote and in-person instruction) and working to bring more and more students on campus. This means students may be on campus during the final weeks of the academic year normally reserved for federally mandated testing.

An Unprecedented Year

Conversations around the purpose and value of standardized testing have been controversial long before a global pandemic impacted the academic landscape. While some data-focused professionals see state testing as a way to monitor student progress and inform decision making about school effectiveness — others recognize the goals of education are beyond what test scores measure, and voice concern about the quality of an education that overemphasizes a set of, often culturally-biased multiple-choice questions. This year presents a new set of questions and needs surrounding the administration of state exams.

For the majority of American students, the past school year has been completed through virtual meetings and computer assignments — or not at all. It is estimated that roughly 25% of students have had no or minimal access to school during remote instruction. Contributing factors include families experiencing homelessness, those with disabilities, and students who have had to work in or outside the home during the school day. Even for students with access, distractions and depression have plagued many over the course of 2021, resulting in significant impacts on typical learning engagement.

A Return to Testing

Even amidst these truly unprecedented circumstances, the Biden administration announced in late February that standardized tests, which were canceled last year, must resume. The memo cites the urgency of understanding the impact the pandemic has had on student learning and the necessity of reporting scores.

The U.S Department of Education acknowledges the need for flexibility and is offering several waivers to accommodate state needs. One waiver allows schools to request a bypass of accountability in progress toward Academic Achievement goals. If schools have had a participation rate below 95%, they will not be required to use the test results to assign identification to schools that normally inform the resources allotted to those schools. In other words, the assessment data must be recorded and reported transparently — but it won’t “count” in the way it normally does toward school ratings.

The February memo also briefly addresses safety concerns stating:

“Certainly, we do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test.”

Suggestions for shortened or remote testing are suggested in areas where it is determined unsafe for students to return to in-person learning. With many unknowns about vaccine effectiveness and the already widely varying state responses — testing is likely to be administered differently by state.

What We’ll Know

The testing data gathered this year will be the first national data point for measuring “Covid slide,” the learning loss caused by the effects of the pandemic. Scores will be compared with student’s last standardized test two years prior to measure growth, and the numbers will also be compared longitudinally to previous grade-level results. We’ll also see numbers reflecting the progress of students who have been logged out, and have been absent for much of the school year — at least those who do return for this final stretch of the school year.

Gathering this data will provide a first glance at the weight of the work ahead to recover from a challenging year, but it won’t tell the whole story. Like in years prior, standardized tests will fail to paint the whole picture. The data won’t tell us why students perform the way they do, and how their social-emotional health has altered their ability, not only to learn, but to demonstrate that learning donning a face covering, in an environment they have been away from for over a year. Testing will happen as many teachers transition to this new phase of instruction and get to know their students in-person for the first time.

Ivan Aleksic via

The normal efforts of teachers to enliven a week of sustained mental effort and sitting silently for hours will no doubt be affected. Will there still be orange juice and dance parties to celebrate students’ hard work? Will a return to in-person instruction be centered around reconnecting and engaging with peers, or collecting data without regard for the human beings behind it? The months ahead will likely provide more questions than answers.

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Jessica Walsh

Jessica Walsh

Educator, writer, well-being enthusiast