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COVID-19 and Assessments: Moving from “What If?” to “What Now?”

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March 30th, 2020

When I picked my daughter up from school on March 2nd, her teacher was handing out packets of information about the upcoming end-of-year tests and practice questions. She talked to a group of parents about how we could help prepare our children. At some point, someone referenced what we’d all been hearing on the news. 

What if schools close?  

By March 6th, all schools across my state were, in fact, closed. Scrambling to engage my daughter during the long days at home, I pulled out that packet. 

What if state tests are cancelled?

Now, on March 30th, 49 states, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have either sought or been granted a waiver from the US Department of Education to forgo testing this year. 


A new type of question

In less than one month, our nation’s education system has been upended. District officials who might otherwise spend much of the spring engaged in strategic planning for the next year are now grappling with how to ensure students have access to adequate nutrition or standing up a distance learning model.

What was, for a brief few days, a coiling list of “What ifs” has now been replaced with a relative certainty that (1) many districts across the country will not return this year; and (2) standardized testing will not happen as designed.

That leaves us with a much bigger question to answer: What now?

Our nation’s education accountability system has long been controversial. Efforts ranging from state-sponsored Innovative Assessment Pilots to grassroots groups advocating for change have been in motion to reform high-stakes testing for years. But now that state assessments are suddenly cancelled, no one is exactly celebrating. 

According to a recent EdWeek article, the implications of not testing are far-reaching. Key decisions—such as grade-level promotion, teacher evaluation, and funding—are made in many states based upon summative assessment data as part of their accountability systems. And so far, little information has been released regarding just how states will be able to reconcile the situation.

Districts and schools are also bracing for the impact. “Regardless of what anyone thinks about standardized testing, not having them at all brings up a host of new problems,” says Jacob Vullier, Assistant Principal at Alcovy High School in Newton County, Georgia. “We count on that data at the district and school levels.”


What we can do now

In my role, I talk with educators often about the importance of comprehensive assessment systems, which are designed to thoughtfully balance delivery and data analysis for actionable next steps. Now that we will be without summative scores and data from progress monitoring and benchmarks that would have been implemented throughout the spring, the idea of “balance” is more or less moot. 

So now I am, like so many others in education, thinking about that new question: What now?  

Fortunately, there are some ways we can work to re-balance assessment systems and make up for missing data:

Leverage online tools. 

While sadly we know that not all students have access to devices and reliable internet, many districts have made tremendous strides to help students stay connected. Through a web-based formative assessment system, like DnA or SchoolCity, you can continue to administer classroom assessments. Similarly, FastBridge universal screening and progress monitoring tools can be utilized virtually. Check out the Illuminate Education COVID-19 Resources page for supports and best practices.

Continue to make meaning of the data you do have.

As many teachers work tirelessly to find ways to engage with students at this time, we should also recognize the continued need for meaningful data practices. The best way to target instruction and supports in a virtual setting is to ensure decisions are data-informed. And now, perhaps more than ever educators must be collecting data, including anecdotal information from phone calls and web conferences, and working together to make sense of data in PLCs.

Prepare to fill data deficits and accelerate learning next year.

Though some of the details are left to be determined, we know now that we will start the next school year without the same data we are used to having. And, we will need to understand the impact of this time on student mastery, which is likely to be more than the “summer slide” we are used to seeing. This means that there will be a greater need than ever to obtain valid, reliable data without wasting time better spent reconnecting with students and delivering instruction. District and school leaders should look to pair high-quality standards-based assessments with universal screening and diagnostic measurements to build back student data stories and create actionable plans.

We are living through a time with more questions than we may have answers. But it’s critical that educators recognize what this shift in assessment systems means now,  especially as we look forward to a new year. 

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  1. Tricia Finn on April 27, 2020 at 9:06 am

    Good afternoon,

    Thank you so much for your very informative webinar on Building Assessments. I have two follow up questions.
    1. Are these assessments available to all schools or just those who are currently contracted with IO Education and have a particular package?
    2. Where can the assessments be found? My AP is usually the person managing Skedula/Pupil Path so I am not as familiar with the site.

    Thanks so much and have a great day!

    Principal of PS/MS 42Q

    • Lynn Ehlers on April 27, 2020 at 3:03 pm

      Hi Tricia,

      So glad that you enjoyed the webinar! We’d love to discuss your questions. Please reach out to our team ( so we can provide more information based on your specific account. We look forward to talking with you!

  2. Dr. Gregory Firn on April 30, 2020 at 8:10 am

    Interesting read – I would however suggest that we have the technology now more than ever to move to an informing assessment model that focuses on the leading indicators of learning not just an after the fact assessment of what a student did or didn’t learn. The bane of our existence has been the inability to peek inside the learning process as a learner is learning to affirm, interrupt, disrupt or correct. SMART technology can do this presently and if we applied it to scale, we would see significant advances in learning especially by historically marginalized and unsuccessful students – last comment, to the educators who depend on end of course/end of year testing to make decisions, shame on you. You should know your students, their progress to date, their needs, and certainly their competencies without relying on lagging, after the fact, data.

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