Why Standardized Tests Should Assess Students, Not Schools

The pandemic has led us to re-examine myriad educational issues and provided an opportunity to finally enact meaningful reforms.

image kids taking a test
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Today, many school districts across the country are playing catch-up against the infamous "COVID slide." Significant instructional time was lost over the last 18 months as brick-and-mortar schools pivoted to online learning, and studies show that students fell behind as a result. In response, some believe that educators must place even more emphasis on prepping for standardized tests. I believe that's a good idea — if your goal is to demonstrate that schools managed the pandemic as best they could.

But if the objective is serving students as best we can, we should not be doubling down on a broken assessment apparatus that is already over-emphasized. Instead, we should be leveraging this opportunity to fundamentally alter our approach to testing and reset priorities that have been misaligned for more than 20 years. Right now, testing is focused on measuring the overall performance of schools and districts first. Helping individual students improve their performance comes second. As a result:

• Test preparation in reading and math dominates the curriculum and limits students' exposure to science, history, humanities and the arts.

• The need to hold schools to the same standard creates equity gaps by providing unfair advantages to students from certain cultures or socio-economic backgrounds.

• Those equity gaps are perpetuated when poor scores result in measures that lock students out of more challenging courses.

• Most state testing only gives a snapshot of where students are at the end of a school year — not how far they have progressed in that time, or how far they can progress in the future. And in several states, testing results aren't even reported until after the school year ends. By that time, most students have moved to a new grade with different teachers or schools.

• Perhaps most important of all, state testing does not inform teacher instruction. Results are rarely used to personalize curricula or lesson plans so students can shore up their weaknesses and build on their strengths.

These issues have been apparent since they were codified by No Child Left Behind in 2001. They remain even after the passage of Every Child Succeeds in 2015. We see them highlighted in headlines across the country, from suburban Chicago to New York City. And even those who work within the testing and assessment industry recognize the need to refocus our attention on students and transform standardized testing into a tool that helps them move forward.

Chris Minnich, the CEO of testing giant NWEA, whose tests are taken by 10.7 million students worldwide each year, recently told me that he sees a big opportunity to do more when it comes to what we do with test results. Specifically, he wants us to look harder at where a student started from and where they end up, so we can identify the logical next step for that kid.

Student-centric approaches such as these have resulted in increased calls for more "formative testing," which monitors student progress on an ongoing basis as a way to provide instructors with feedback they can then use to improve their methods in real time. Moreover, these calls aren't just about improving student performance; they're about enhancing student equity as well.

So, how do we get to a place where progress is the measure of performance, and where testing is not just about accountability, but about our responsibility to ensure each and every student has a chance to achieve?

• Test smarter. Shorter, more frequent, more expansive tests can provide our educators with the intelligence they need to hone and adjust their approaches as needed.

• Test in more subjects than reading and math. More expansive tests will provide students with a more well-rounded educational experience.

• Measure where students start, not just where they finish. By measuring progress, we get a more accurate picture of students' capabilities and ensure we don't close doors that should remain open.

• Maintain standards, but strike the right balance. There will always be a need to measure student, teacher and school performance against universal criteria; but those criteria must be underwritten by more than our sense of where students should be given their age.

• Use more than just standardized tests. Test results are an important metric, but not the only measure of success. By implementing processes to capture data on college performance, career success and a host of other indicators, we can get a clearer picture of what students are really getting out of their educational experience.

The pandemic has led us to re-examine myriad educational issues and provided an opportunity to finally enact meaningful reforms. As such, this is no time to reinvest in a system we've known to be broken for far too long. We have the chance to put the focus back where it belongs by measuring what matters most: our ability to help students navigate their unique learning journeys, regardless of where those journeys begin.

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