••• Education •••

Kansas should forge ahead with state assessments

As the calendar turns to a new year and with it the school spring semester, one question for K-12 education is garnering attention: Given the impact of COVID-19, should/will there be state assessments in 2021? It is vital that the state board and KSDE do everything possible to make sure those tests are administered. As of this writing, the tests are scheduled to be conducted during April and May.

Last spring Education Secretary Betsy DeVos granted waivers to every state from giving state assessments – state assessments have been required for 20 years under federal law – for the 2019-20 school year as schools across the country struggled with the pandemic. Once again, the issue of waivers has come up regarding 2021 testing. DeVos has not granted a waiver to any state, but that is likely irrelevant given the incoming Biden Administration.

A new Education Secretary might be more willing to grant waivers, especially if the new secretary is someone aligned with teachers’ unions. Two names that have come up in discussions are Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and Lily Eskelsen García, former president of the National Education Association (NEA). Since teachers’ unions, in general, are opposed to assessments, especially in states in which assessment results are part of teacher evaluations, a Weingarten or García could be predisposed to foregoing assessments again this year. Several states have already positioned themselves to avoid conducting state assessments in 2021.

This issue comes on the heels of the decision to postpone NAEP, the nationwide assessment given every two years and referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. Another round of NAEP was due in the spring of 2021 but those plans were scuttled last month. In part the reversal was due to concerns that the proctors needed for NAEP could “possibly increas(e) the risk of COVID transmission,” federal Commissioner of Education Statistics  Dr. James Woodworth said upon postponing the test for a year.

However, Dr. Woodworth cited the importance of states to go ahead with state-level testing.  In his words, “there is still an opportunity to get solid state-by-state data on the impact of COVID on student outcomes. This state-level data can serve as a bridge until Spring 2022 when NCES will likely be able to conduct the national NAEP assessment in a manner that has sufficient validity and reliability.”

At this time there is no reason Kansas could (or should) not administer state assessments. Here is a list of reasons why:

  • The assessments are already on the Kansas Assessment Program calendar. The assessment window is from April 1 to May 18.
  • The state assessments no longer consume several weeks to administer as they did during my experience in the No Child Left Behind years. Only grades 3-8 and 10 take the math and English Language Arts (ELA) and according to the calendar, each requires two sessions of 45-60 minutes along with two science sessions of 45 minutes each given to grades 5, 8, and 11 only.
  • Test results would provide some insight into the impact of distance learning vs. in-person learning. The data would afford a plethora of information that could provide a basis of how education is provided post-COVID-19.
  • With large income-based achievement gaps that existed long before COVID 19 and are not improving despite record education spending, understanding how those gaps might be changing amidst COVID-19-related shutdowns is only more important.
  • With the potential of reduced education spending due to the pandemic-related economic downturn, it is possible the Kansas Supreme Court will once again be called upon to “force” more money to schools. With total K-12 spending now north of $7 billion and per-pupil spending in excess of $15,000, student achievement on state assessments, which according to the Kansas Supreme Court is a function of spending, would shine some light on that assumption.

With a vaccine apparently on the horizon, I sincerely hope school staff are among the initial group to be inoculated. First and foremost, it is the right thing to do since teachers and other school employees are among those required to interact with large groups to do their jobs.  But it would also mean that the education community wouldn’t have an excuse to avoid testing.

The fact that K-12 education has had to provide alternative learning environments in response to the pandemic is not an excuse to dismiss state assessments.  On the contrary, it is imperative to have the data generated from those assessments to help measure and analyze the impact of those alternatives. Simply because the conditions have changed doesn’t mean school districts should be absolved from accountability.

This year many families have chosen education alternatives outside the realm of the traditional public school system. In other words, they have created their own version of school choice. The results from the state assessments could provide impetus to expand school choice going forth.