Standardized Tests Are Essential for Equity

Standardized Tests Are Essential for Equity
AP Photo/Mike Groll

State standardized exams help parents, educators, and policymakers understand which kids are on track—who is falling behind—so that the adults can act accordingly to better meet students’ needs. This information is more crucial than ever this year given that traditional schooling is now upended.

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COVID-19 forced school closures, reopening delays, and shifted millions of students into virtual classrooms and nearly unrecognizable in-person instruction. Some say that the school year will be too disrupted to have state standardized exams. But that is exactly the reason we need them. 

While all kids are experiencing disruption, some students are disproportionally impacted by the effects of the pandemic. Our most vulnerable students—including children living in poverty, English language learners, and students in special education—are at risk of falling further behind. We must be vigilant in our efforts to understand what kids are experiencing academically this school year.

Equity drives many education conversations today. But any initiative designed to help schools serve all students more fairly will make little impact unless we use valid and reliable measurements of student academic progress to see improvement.

Many parents agree. 

“If you look at civil-rights lawsuits where communities are suing states or districts for better education and fairness in schools, you’re probably going to find in every one that they quickly pull the test scores of the district,” said Chris Stewart, an education advocate and CEO of brightbeam. “It would be a phenomenally bad thing to not have that data. You would not have the basis for showing the inequities and outcomes,”

According to Keri Rodrigues, the co-founder of the National Parent Union, “If I don’t have testing data to make sure my child’s on the right track, I’m not able to intervene and say there is a problem and my child needs more.”

A recent poll from Democrats for Education Reform also shows that parents surveyed support spring testing this school year and the use of high-quality assessments for diagnostic purposes.

When teachers and parents complain about over testing, the blame is often placed on state standardized exams. But campus-wide or districtwide inventories of all the tests given can reveal different problems that include legacy tests administered without a clear purpose—or class time solely focused on test prep instead of instruction.

The purpose and use of each test given in a classroom should be clear and distinct. Principals and district leaders should prioritize a regular inventory of all assessments given along with their purpose. Findings and any recommendations for change should be shared broadly.

Clearly communicating the purpose and use of tests will better inform and engage teachers and parents—important stakeholders. We can better engage families by creating straightforward online resources to explain the design, scoring, and sample questions for standardized tests (for example, resources in Texas and Massachusetts). 

And states or districts can create hubs for all student academic progress data that can be easily accessed and understood by teachers, parents, and students. Report cards, district exams, state exams, and other test data should be housed together so that parents can see their child’s full spectrum of academic results in one place.

Assessment is a key element of teaching and learning—and of system accountability. Too many educators have gaps in their understanding of assessment design, the role of formative and summative tests, and how standardized tests are a crucial equity tool. Educator preparation programs and ongoing professional development should focus on assessment literacy to help teachers and principals use and advocate for high-quality tests. States should also involve teachers in creating standardized exams.

The current pandemic has blown apart the public education system as we knew it—simultaneously exacerbating vulnerabilities for many children and forcing rapid innovation to meet this instructional moment. The adults in the system must now focus on two things in response: The first is safety for kids and educators. The second is accelerating academic progress for all kids, regardless of race, ethnicity, or disability.

We need to organize the rest of the system to support those outcomes, and high-quality tests are an important tool in that worthy effort.

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