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Five principles for K-12 testing through COVID-19 and beyond

a girl watches her teacher on a laptop
Studies show that remote online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with growing achievement gaps among students.

Amid the massive disruptions that COVID-19 has inflicted on American education, it can be easy to overlook its impact on testing. But that would be a mistake. When it comes to school testing and the way those scores are used to make innumerable decisions, there are big challenges — and even bigger opportunities — ahead.

The challenges for testing are obvious, at least in the short term. Across the land, a third of schools have been remote since last March and another third have been offering a hodgepodge of hybrid instruction. Meanwhile, millions of students have disappeared entirely from the radar of their local schools. Things might start to return to some sense of normalcy this spring, especially once teachers get vaccinated, but there’s little chance that all students will be back in classrooms by June — given how many parents say they’re hesitant to send their kids back into school buildings.

Parents, voters, and policymakers are understandably anxious to get a sense of how the pandemic has affected academic progress — but given the ever-changing nature of the crisis, it’s going to be tough to collect that information in a trustworthy manner. In fact, the gold-standard National Assessment of Educational Progress won’t be administered in 2021; COVID-19 has pushed it back a year. States didn’t administer their tests last spring, and it looks like many (or most) are hoping to skip this spring, as well.

In states that do test, how should these results be used? With many students out of school, how reliable will the data be? In an education world so disrupted, with many families navigating remote learning, what kind of information will be most useful to parents, educators and policymakers?

As we think about the role of testing during the pandemic and beyond, five intuitions should guide us.

Testing has to be about helping teachers teach and learners learn. The emphasis during the No Child Left Behind era was on tests that would allow policymakers to judge school performance. Our state tests, which owe so much to NCLB’s commitment to accountability and transparency, have real value. But they frequently provide results long after school ends and, in any event, don’t give teachers or parents information intended to aid individual learners. As we look to getting tens of millions of kids back to school and diagnosing where they are and what they need, there has to be a premium on assessments that are timely, agile, and useful for teaching and learning.

Don’t give up on reading, writing, and math tests. We might not need to test every kid every year, and the “Three Rs” are surely not all that matter when it comes to education. But regular assessments of these basic skills provide important checks on what’s happening in schools, give us a sense of which schools or systems are doing especially well or poorly, and help us identify instructional practices that work. And let there be no doubt: Mastering literacy and numeracy is essential for every young American in the 21st century.

We need good measures of school quality and student success that extend beyond reading, writing, and math scores. It’s been five years since the federal Every Student Succeeds Act opened the door for states to use new metrics to evaluate schools, yet the response has been anemic. Beyond some efforts to use absenteeism, student and parent surveys, and college-readiness indices, little has emerged. We’ve seen little movement on gauging civics education, world language mastery, or other academic dimensions. Philanthropists, researchers, and public officials have much work to do when it comes to pioneering a richer, more robust array of metrics.

Accountability alone doesn’t make schools better. Don’t get us wrong — we’re not arguing against the value of assessing student learning and using those results to monitor school outcomes. But accountability systems which place too much weight on reading and math scores have proven to be a perilous path to system change — doing more to promote bureaucracy and stymie educators than serve students. We need to empower educators to do their best work and invest in developing the know-how that supports powerful learning. Sensible accountability is a part of that, but only a part.

Parental choice is a vital form of accountability, too. Most efforts to intervene in chronically low performing schools don’t work, and few states have the political will to shutter ineffective schools, even if that would be best for their students. A smarter approach is to let parents vote with their feet, and make sure that kids stuck in bad schools get better options. That’s both the right thing to do, and a more plausible way to put bad schools out of their misery.

If there’s a silver lining to the plague that has shaped our national life for most of the past year, it’s that a crisis creates the opportunity to rethink familiar assumptions and habits. America’s schools — and especially the tests that have done so much to shape them over the past two decades — are no exception.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of the education policy program at the American Enterprise Institute. Michael J. Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Tags coronavirus pandemic Education Education in the United States Educational assessment National Assessment of Educational Progress No Child Left Behind Act remote classes remote education Remote learning Standardized test standardized testing Standards-based education

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