Wednesday, February 24, 2021

State and Federal Governments Need Assessment Intervention

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I hadn’t heard from my colleague in quite a while, so I was pleased to see her name pop up on my social media—until I read the contents of her message.  It seems her daughter, a very bright high school junior, had to take a state-required merit exam yesterday.  Following the safe distancing protocols, the school required her to take the test in the school gym.  On the bleachers.  Balancing the test and answer sheet on a lapboard.


The test was the ACT.


Just when it seemed things were heading in the direction of common sense, along comes the government to put logic in its place.  Your school isn’t offering in-person instruction—or is doing so, but  with severe limits using social distancing protocols?  Let’s put these to the test (sorry) and have you do annual state testing as if nothing had happened this past year.  After all, we need to see what the children have and haven’t learned.


The children have learned plenty, thank you very much—but most of it isn’t measured on the test.  It’s pretty likely scores will be down this year compared to past years; but even if school had been open every day and we were still saving the use of masks for Halloween and Mardi Gras, would learning really be accurately measured while students are taking the tests in a semi-fetal position on bleachers? Since many of these tests are used to award state scholarships for college, are leaders prepared to reduce the cut scores to reflect the realities of reduced learning and the effect of testing logistics that resemble Twister more than Oxford? 

Students have learned all about flexibility, altering study strategies, and the huge difference learning platforms can make when it comes to understanding ideas.  Last time I checked, the ACT measured none of these, and the items it does measure have often received short shrift in the back-and-forth conversion to online learning.  What exactly are the states expecting?


In fairness to at least some states, part of the blame for this goes to Washington, where a change in presidents and Education secretaries has evidently done little in the name of student learning.  Leaders of my home state anticipated test scores would cave this year, so they asked the US Department of Education if they could just take a pass this year on mandatory testing.  The response of the we’re-not-Betsy-Devos leadership was remarkably familiar:  Nope. As a result, schools that have never been open all year in the interest of the health of the students must now open up for mandatory testing.  You can’t help but wonder if Dr. Fauci’s going to scratch his head when COVID cases jump among high school juniors in March.


We’re entering year two of social distancing, so it’s easy to understand if people are getting  a little cabin fever, deciding it might be worth a chance to eat a meal out or attend someone’s wedding.  The vast majority of colleges that waived testing requirements this year are wise enough not to take the bait, and are extending the testing freeze another year (note—this clearly means most of them will never be going back to test requirements.  You heard it here first). After seeing the successful transition colleges have made to an ACT-free world, many government officials have decided to wait until the last minute and require tests anyway, reflecting the too-little-too-late decision-making that has plagued the COVID crisis since day one.


If that’s not an assessment of what hasn’t been learned, nothing is.

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