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Policy to Practice: The State of State Assessments

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October 8th, 2020

With the widespread school closures in the spring of 2020, every state applied forand was immediately granteda waiver for the summative assessments required under the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA). In the weeks that followed, it became increasingly clear that the 2020-2021 school year would also be significantly disrupted by the pandemic. As a result, several states, including Georgia, Ohio, and Louisiana expressed concerns over high-stakes testing, and also interest in obtaining waivers for another year.

However, on September 3, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sent a letter to chief state school officials affirming that the Department of Education has no intention of granting these waivers again.  

While she acknowledged the tremendous challenges states and districts face in this school year and the uncertainty that lies ahead, Secretary DeVos reiterated the importance of data to drive actions and address the inequities exacerbated by COVID-19. The letter stated firmly, “Make no mistake. If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come. Not only will vulnerable students fall behind, but we will be abandoning the important, bipartisan reforms of the past two decades at a critical moment.”

The letter has since been met with mixed reactions. For example, Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods expressed concerns with the US Department of Education’s position on testing waivers, citing the need for educators to focus on student learning and wellbeing first. At the same time, others applauded the decision. The Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), for example, issued a statement of support, asserting, “Assessments provide the very tools we need to create a path forward to improvement and ensuring education systems are serving each and every student well.”

Moving from Policy to Practice 

None of us—policymakers, educators (and the organizations that support them), parents, and students—have ever been in a situation like this before. And there is no single, easy answer. As an August 3 statement from Chiefs for Change thoughtfully explained, there is great concern across the country over student learning loss, especially among those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds. This makes assessing for and addressing gaps more important than ever. 

Still, they noted that traditional assessment and accountability systems may simply not be feasible this year, or their data may be inherently flawed. And so, federal and state education leaders should work together to identify alternative ways to collect critical data that can inform equitable action.

But what about districts, schools, and classrooms? What can teachers and administrators do now to understand student needs and provide targeted support? 

1) Focus on growth and acceleration—not remediation.

Educators have been urged by experts not to sink into a pattern of universal remediation—not only because it is unlikely to be effective but also because of the risk of exacerbating inequitable practices. With learning so widely disrupted in the spring and students likely starting farther behind in terms of ‘proficiency’ than most years, educators are urged to focus on growth for all students. Historically underserved students and those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and school closures should be carefully monitored to ensure they are receiving the right supports to grow throughout the year. 

2) Use assessment tools and practices to understand and accelerate learning. 

While there is understandable attention on the future of high stakes summative assessments, now is the time to focus on implementing all parts of a comprehensive and balanced assessment system, including formative practices that drive instruction. This best practice is echoed broadly by experts and advocacy organizations, including the Learning Policy Institute (LPI). In its recent Restarting and Reinventing Schools report, LPI urged movement toward “more coherent systems of assessment of, for, and as learning.” 

As I shared in an earlier post, comprehensive and balanced assessment systems are defined among other thingsby:

  • The intentional scheduling and administration of assessment types, including screeners, diagnostics, progress monitors, interims, and summatives, as well as integrated classroom formative assessment practices.
  • High quality assessment content and addressing both skills and standards.
  • Flexibility to accommodate different instructional models, including in-person, hybrid, and remote, through assessment solutions that can be effectively utilized in both classrooms and distance learning environments.

3) Support the whole child to equitably support learning and growth.

Many educators are starting the year focusing on student wellbeing, connection, and sense of safety—a practice widely supported by experts. Importantly, Chiefs for Change note that student relationships with teachers not only increase students’ academic and social-emotional outcomes but impact “motivation, satisfaction, self-esteem, and social skills,” and that these considerations are “especially important for first-generation students and students of color.” In order to ensure students are ready to succeed in learning, district and school leaders should ensure that educators are equipped to understand social-emotional behavior (SEB) needs in addition to academic needs.

A whole child approach requires assessments that provide insights on whole child needs, and a truly comprehensive assessment system provides valid and reliable tools to do that.

While the US Department of Education’s letter brings a bit more clarity to state summative assessments this year and there is great focus on obtaining critical data, the path to get there likely won’t be easy or without some controversy. That is why educators must continue to put students first and focus on assessments for and as learning now.


Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. Our solution combines comprehensive assessment, MTSS management and collaboration, and real-time dashboard tools, and puts them in the hands of educators. As a result, educators can monitor learning and growth, identify academic and social-emotional behavioral needs, and align targeted supports in order to accelerate learning for each student. 

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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