Students might take standardized tests this spring, but Vermont schools won’t be sweating the results.
The tests, administered annually to students in grades 3-9 as prescribed by federal law, are based on common-core standards focusing on English, math and science. Science assessment is also given to students in grade 11.
Last year, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) canceled the tests. This year, however, it’s telling schools to proceed despite concerns among educators the data collected after a year or remote and hybrid learning won’t be particularly useful.
And while the DOE declined states’ requests to cancel the tests again this year, it has allowed states like Vermont to file waivers asking that accountability requirements be waived.
To that end, schools will not be penalized if fewer than 95% of students take the test, test scores will not be tied to school performance ratings, and the current group of schools in need of comprehensive supports will be held stable for another year so they can continue to use those supports.
The waiver was released last week for public comment.
Vt. Deputy Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey acknowledged educators have reasonable concerns about the usefulness of this year’s tests, but said the state must follow federal guidance.
“I think the U.S. DOE, perhaps, is coming from the mindset of, ‘some data is better than no data,” she said, noting that this would be the second consecutive year without new student achievement data.
As of March 30, according to Bouchey, more than 7,000 Vermont students had begun testing and more than 6,400 had already completed their tests.
“It’s going as well as could be expected,” she said.
Testing began Tuesday at Rutland High School. Tests at Rutland Intermediate School and Rutland Middle School are slated to begin after April break.
Rutland City Public Schools Superintendent Bill Olsen said, for the most part, the tests themselves won’t look much different from how they did in the past: Students were already seated far apart and spread out across multiple classrooms, so current distancing guidelines are not a concern.
Since the tests must be taken in person, fully remote students have been asked to return for them.
“Sometimes you get a ‘yes’ and sometimes you get a ‘no,’” Olsen said, noting that, as of Tuesday, 14 families in grade 9 had opted out of testing — just less than 7% of the class.
He added that RHS has informed families they would be allowed to come in for makeup sessions later this month if a student is quarantining or uncomfortable with current COVID-19 case counts.
“We still want to get everybody in that we can to get as full of a picture as we’re hoping to get,” he said.
Olsen said while the tests are part of a larger accountability system the state uses to assess the performance of schools, it’s not clear how useful test data will be this year.
“I don’t know how they’re going to look at accountability this year … but it would be difficult to make clear judgment on how schools are doing based on how the year has been for all the schools across the country.”
Olsen added that, even in a typical year, interpreting results can be a challenge, explaining that a student can have a bad day or not take the test seriously.
“In a regular year, you could question, to a certain extent, how (useful) results are and this year might be even more questionable. But the state’s asking us to do it so we’ll just see what comes out of it,” he said.
Testing started this week at Mill River Union Middle School as well, according to David Younce, superintendent of the Mill River Unified Union School District. The high school will begin testing after break.
Younce said the district has been in contact with fully remote families to make accommodations for students to either participate during a standing testing session or take the tests independently, if they so choose.
When considering whether or not testing during such an unconventional year will yield any helpful data, Younce said it “fits in the bigger context of talking about assessment data in general,” explaining that, even under normal circumstances, standardized tests are a “snapshot.”
“It’s a data point, but it shouldn’t be the only data point,” he said.
According to Younce, interim assessments in math and reading delivered throughout the year provide more valuable data.
And while he thinks this spring’s tests will provide a good look at how students are performing as schools look toward learning recovery post-pandemic, he said that waiving accountability has taken away some pressure.
“What we really would like to see is that, instead of stressing out about standardized tests, both students and teachers are actually focused on instruction and focused on moving back to in-person instruction … and just getting them back into a life beyond the pandemic,” she said.