States are right to cancel testing amid COVID-19, but we can’t make accountability an enemy

Accountability isn’t the most fun discussion topic in education, but it’s a crucial driving force for our schools. As students complete their state assessments each spring, the data that school districts receive back in the fall provides them with valuable information about how effectively they’re reaching their most vulnerable students, closing achievement gaps, and creating learning opportunities for students. Having a foundation of accountability is vital for ensuring that our public schools fulfill their mission. 

However, due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, school accountability is going to look a lot different for Kentucky this year.

The U.S. Department of Education announced last week that it would be granting waivers upon request for any state seeking to bypass standardized testing for the 2019-2020 school year. Kentucky had its waiver approved last week, meaning students won’t be required to take the K-PREP assessment this spring. It’s the right move, but it could stand to complicate the accountability conversation down the road.

Put simply, there’s little reason to believe that testing would actually achieve what it’s set out to in the first place. If accountability is the thermometer that checks the temperature of our public schools, our nationwide COVID-19 outbreak presents the biggest wiring glitch imaginable. Testing this year would be an exercise in futility. 

No state can accurately evaluate school performance during a pandemic event of this scale, especially since students may spend up to a third of the year out of classrooms. Furthermore, many Kentucky families lack reliable broadband access, and as schools are increasingly moving online to combat closures, instructional rigor and teaching quality have varied widely. Take all of the gaps and inequities that already hinder students’ progress, and then consider how this host of new X-factors will only compound over the course of our statewide quarantine — There’s simply no more prudent choice than to cancel state testing this spring.

However, while the Department of Education was right to guarantee testing waivers for all states during the 2019-2020 school year, we must not allow these extenuating circumstances to tamper our thinking on accountability. Anti-accountability folks, like columnist Greg Moore of the Arizona Republic, are already arguing that these waivers should go further.

Standardized tests shouldn’t be used to penalize schools or students. There should be a larger focus on abstract thinking, rather than rote memorization. I’ve worked with high school and college students. I’m always shocked at how many of them want step-by-step instructions, how few of them are willing to wade through uncertainty to figure something out. They’re too often focused on getting a grade, rather than learning a skill. It’s got to be a result of coming up in a system that gets its validation from Scantron results.

The problem with this line of thinking is that you can’t have accountability without testing; removing one defeats the purpose of the other. Even though Moore’s intentions here sound good —like challenging students to think critically, moving away from memorization, cutting stress from teachers, etc. — the impact would be detrimental for accountability. 

And that’s the thing — accountability isn’t the enemy for our students. As boring or stressful as testing may seem, schools would face no meaningful pressure to close the gaps for their most vulnerable students without such measures of accountability. That’s why this kind of rhetoric is troubling, and we can’t allow this chaotic time to exacerbate it.

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