We all know that assessment of student learning is critical to providing a basis for determining instructional strategies that ensure every student—no matter where they’re from, what they look like, or how much money they have—has equitable access to excellent learning opportunities. As educators, we understand that standardized testing is one of many assessment strategies used to determine student achievement and needs; however, too often, the over-reliance on standardized tests limits our ability to accurately evaluate what students know and can do. When an assessment of learning is done well, students can express the full breadth of their knowledge and skills. It encourages students to become lifelong learners and drives the development of appropriate learning experiences.
As the country continues to face health and economic crises, the landscape of public education is experiencing unprecedented shifts in health and safety guidance and expectations for how instruction should be delivered and its contents. Despite the uncertainty of the current climate, the U.S. Department of Education forced students to sit for federally mandated statewide testing this past year, depriving them of valuable learning time—with students from under-resourced communities, English learners, students with disabilities, and students of color shouldering a disproportionate burden.
NEA Task Force on Future of Assessments
Recognizing the need for high-quality, well-rounded assessment systems that support student growth, development, and well-being, the National Education Association (NEA) has created a task force to determine assessment strategies that examine the whole child and make recommendations for a path forward. The NEA Task Force on the Future of Assessment is envisioning assessment systems that will transform how we test to advance inclusion, equity, and racial and social justice in schools. The Task Force is making headway, gathering educator voice, input, and intelligence to evaluate existing assessment methods and redefine the purpose, types, and uses of authentic assessments. The goal of this ongoing work is to ensure that all students—Black, Asian, Latinx, and white, Native and newcomer—have access to an equitable, robust system of asset-based assessments, designed by educators in partnership with stakeholders, that values the full breadth of their knowledge and skills.
Calling All School Board Members
Local educational agency school boards are essential to realizing this future-forward approach to assessing student learning. To work toward this shared goal, school board members might consider the following:
• Prepare and support educators to appropriately deploy a range of quality assessments, including curriculum-embedded and low-stakes formative assessments, to identify individual learner’s strengths and needs. Providing appropriate funding and opportunities to cultivate this knowledge and skills will allow educators to lead the creation of local assessments and provide feedback on assessment systems.
• Engage stakeholders in the work of transforming systems of assessment. We must invest in increased assessment literacy among stakeholders, including educators, students, families, and policymakers, so that they can appropriately support students and advance equity and inclusion in schools, districts, and state educational systems. Students, families, and even local community organizations need and deserve clear, contextualized information about how to support student and school success.
• Conduct an inventory of the assessments administered to students across your district, and eliminate those that are duplicative and/or wasteful of time that could be better spent teaching and learning. Prioritize working with school communities to examine whether the assessments in use are serving their various purposes, are properly aligned to learning targets, and are administered in a way that treats every student with dignity and provides equitable opportunity to pursue their passion and cultivate a positive attitude toward learning.
• Encourage state educational agencies (SEAs) to apply for Competitive Grants for State Assessments (CGSA) and Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA) grants to reimagine assessment systems that are better suited to students’ learning needs.
• As we prepare for school improvement identification cycles to restart in Fall 2022 in accordance with federal guidance, contextualize statewide assessment data through the use of an array of assessments as well as student questionnaires, community surveys, town halls, and equity audits—such as the NEA Opportunity Audit—to help inform federally mandated plans for schools identified for support and improvement.
Fundamentally, the NEA believes that assessment should be used to improve the quality of education and instruction; students deserve the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in multiple ways, including the ability to apply that knowledge as part of a project or performance assessment. The reality is standardized tests can validly assess only a limited range of student learning. Therefore, they only should be used as an adjunct or supplement to information obtained through school- and classroom-based assessment conducted by educators to support and strengthen instruction as well as summarize and evaluate student learning. The NEA recommends school board members partner with educators and engage their professional expertise to design and implement a range of assessment practices that will promote the innovation, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and deep subject-matter knowledge that allow students to thrive in a democracy and an increasingly global society and economy.
As such, the NEA calls on national, state, and local leaders; school board members; families; and community allies to recognize that the over-emphasis on standardized testing has caused considerable collateral damage—including narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, reducing love of learning and instructional time, pushing students out of school, driving excellent teachers out of the profession, and undermining school climate—in too many schools. The federal government must respond and devote its substantial resources to prepare schools and districts for the future of assessment. The U.S. Department of Education needs to extend appropriate flexibilities to allow states and districts to explore alternatives for assessing student learning beyond standardized testing.
Caitlin Geiger, Senior Writer/Editor, National Education Association, and Christine DonFrancesco, Senior Policy Analyst, National Education Association