Why Local Tests Should Not be Used in Lieu of Annual Statewide Assessments – This Year, or Any Year


March 1, 2021

Why Local Tests Should Not be Used in Lieu of Annual Statewide Assessments – This Year, or Any Year

By Charles Barone

Last Monday, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced that it would not issue blanket waivers for statewide, annual assessments for the 2020-21 school year. Instead, the Department will offer states some degree of flexibility on how and when the assessments will be administered and what they will be used for.

One of the battles taking place, behind the scenes, in the lead up to ED’s announcement was over whether or not states would be allowed to use local assessment data in lieu of summative statewide assessments. Moreover, those in favor of doing so weren’t just trying to adjust policies temporarily to adapt to the COVID context but instead were making the case for doing so indefinitely—essentially voiding key components of federal education law.

AFT President Randi Weingarten expressed grave disappointment with the Administration’s decision stating:

“It misses a huge opportunity to really help our students by allowing the waiver of assessments and the substitution, instead, of locally developed, authentic assessments that could be used by educators and parents as a baseline for work this summer and next year. As the educators in the classroom, we have always known that standardized tests are not the best way to measure a child’s development, nor do they particularly help kids or inform best practices for teaching and learning.”

In essence, the AFT and other opponents of annual, statewide assessments are trying to rewrite hard-fought provisions put in federal law via the regular legislative process, through the stroke of what they assume will be a friendly bureaucratic pen.

One key theme throughout ESSA is that standards and assessments must be the same, statewide, for all students. The words “all,” “same,” and “statewide,” as applied to standards, assessments, schools, and students appear consistently across what is really the heart of the entire 400-page law. As legislative terms go, “all,” “same,” and “statewide” are about as precise as it gets, and these provisions have a 27-year history under various iterations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

There are good reasons why these provisions have stood the test of time. Local assessment systems have broad policy and political appeal but are unsuited for producing valid, comparable results needed to ensure equity systemwide:

First, local assessments are usually not aligned to rigorous state standards, and even most of those claiming to be aligned have not undergone peer review to guarantee it. At the very least, varying technical capacity at the local level severely limits the potential quality of local assessments. As a result, if local assessments replace statewide tests, students in different local education agencies could be held to very different standards, even though they would ultimately be applying to the same colleges and competing for the same jobs. And, even under the best intentions, there are immense political and economic pressures at the local level to cast schools in the best light possible.

Second, results from different local assessments, even when high quality, cannot be reliably compared to one another; they weren’t designed to. When these issues were debated in the late 1990’s, Congress requested the National Academy of Sciences to convene a panel to answer the question: “Can scores on one test be made interpretable in terms of scores on other tests? Can we have more uniform data about student performance from our healthy hodgepodge of state and local programs?”

And the result, as chronicled succinctly by Michael Feuer, former executive director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education at the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, who wanted the panel to get to “yes:” “After deliberation that lasted nine months, involving intensive review of the technical literature and consideration of every possible methodological nuance, the committee’s answer was a blunt ‘no.'”

Unless there have been quantum breakthroughs in the psychometric sciences in the intervening years (there haven’t been), it’s safe to say that, despite some claims to the contrary, this is just as true today as it was when the NAS review was conducted.

If we abandon or reprioritize statewide assessment systems, poor and minority students, students with disabilities, and English Learners—who historically, prior to advent of the standards and assessment movement, were held to lower standards—might return to a time when they repeatedly were told they were doing fine, only to graduate from high school and discover they didn’t have the skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace.

Moreover, and most important, resources that are now allocated on the basis of accountability systems geared to a single and apples-to-apples comparable set of state tests—those, for example, for after-school and summer programs, tutoring, teacher training, and new curricula—might be misdirected away from areas that actually need them most, because each district or school would then be measured by different standards and different yardsticks.

Substituting local tests for statewide assessments this spring, or any other time, would rob policymakers and educators of vital data needed to support recovery and would return us to a time when systematic disenfranchisement was swept under the rug. As tempting and politically appealing as it may be, it’s simply not sound or equitable policy.