Education Reform

Lorrie A. Shepard: Testing Students This Spring Would Be a Mistake

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Lorrie A. Shepard is one of the nation’s most eminent assessment experts. In this article in Education Week, she explains that it would be a mistake to resume testing this spring. She is University Distinguished Professor in the research and evaluation methodology program of the school of education at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

Shepard writes:

This past spring, the U.S. Department of Education gave states permission to cancel federally mandated state testing and accountability reporting because of pandemic-induced lockdowns. As the new testing season approaches, many advocacy groupsare urging the department to reinstate testing requirements.

As an assessment researcher who has studied both high-stakes statewide tests and very different classroom-assessment processes, I am alarmed when testing advocates claim that test data will automatically serve equity goals. Advocates do not acknowledge any potential harm from testing for the very students in communities of color most traumatized by COVID-19. If the downsides were factored in, I believe most, even all, state tests would be canceled for 2021.

Even under normal circumstances, high-stakes testing has negative consequences. State assessment programs co-opt valuable instructional time, both for weeklong test administration and for test preparation. Accountability pressures often distort curriculum, emphasizing testlike worksheets and focusing only on tested subjects. 

Recent studies of data-driven decisionmaking warn us that test-score interpretations can lead to deficit narratives—blaming children and their families—instead of prompting instructional improvements. High-stakes tests can also lead to stigmatizing labels and ineffective remedial interventions, as documented by decades of research.

Most significantly, teachers report that they and their students experience high degrees of anxiety, even shame, when test scores are publicly reported. These stressors would undoubtedly be heightened when many students will not yet have had the opportunity to learn all of what is covered on state tests. A high proportion of teachers are already feeling burnt-out.

Some advocates, alert to the potential for harm, have argued in favor of testing but without accountability consequences. Clearly it would be unfair to hold schools and teachers accountable for outcomes when students’ learning opportunities have varied because of computer and internet access, home learning circumstances, and absences related to sickness or family disruption.

Others are insisting on accountability for spring 2021, saying that schools and districts had plenty of time this school year to prepare for COVID circumstances. In a recent letter, 10 civil rights, social-justice, disability-rights, and education advocacy organizations urged the Education Department to maintain federally mandated testing requirements so as “to hold districts and states to account.”

That impulse looks very close to blaming educators, who have given so much during the pandemic. It is counterproductive because it potentially demoralizes students and teachers without addressing the grave problems advocates have in mind.

One of the main arguments for testing this spring is to document the extent of learning loss, especially disproportionate losses affecting poor children and communities of color. We are told those data would then be used to allocate additional resources to support students who have fallen the furthest behind...

We already have enough evidence of COVID impacts to warrant federal investments. At the state level, there may not be new monies to allocate because of budget cuts.

Testing advocates should also consider the technical difficulties of testing during a pandemic. Remote testing requires security protocols that would violate privacy laws in some states, and even with such protocols, remote and in-person test results could not be aggregated or compared as if they were equivalent. Bringing all students into schools for testing when some are still learning remotely is unfair.

Consider, too, that the many students who are now absent from remote learning would likely be absent from testing, skewing results compared with previous years. Given the likely inaccuracies in 2021 state test scores, other data sources might be just as good depending on the intended purpose for testing...

Bear in mind that state tests do little to guide instruction for individual students. Knowing which students are below proficient does not tell teachers what skills they have already mastered nor what understandings students still need. Assessments embedded in high-quality curriculum or key assignments are the best way for teachers to gain substantive insights about children’s thinking, plan instruction, and share information with parents.

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