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Opinion: Could coronavirus change our obsession with school testing and accountability?

If there is one thing we’ve learned from schooling in the era of COVID-19, it is that schools serve a greater role in society than the narrow purpose of academic instruction.

Without schools, our economy would fail to prosper, and our children will not be as healthy and safe. Despite the wide range of purposes, schools are evaluated with a focus on testing — something I hope to see change when we return to school buildings next year.

Could one bright side of this pandemic be a shift in how the public evaluates schools and educators? Will this experience change our obsession with testing and accountability? 

Erin Anderson

Testing is used to determine student promotion to the next grade, to group them into classes and to evaluate whether they have learned the appropriate amount of information.

Tests are also used to evaluate teachers. Colorado Senate Bill 10-191 requires that 50% of teacher evaluations be based on measures of student outcomes, such as standardized test scores.

Test scores are also used to hold schools accountable for success, as reflected in the School Performance Framework, a report card for each school and district. In the past few years, the federal government reauthorized the No Child Left Behind Act to the Every Student Succeeds Act, changing requirements to allow states to use multiple measures of student success.

Despite the opportunity to measure student success with a more holistic set of measures, most states have not taken advantage of the multiple measures, including Colorado. 

Despite these accountability efforts, dissatisfaction has emerged in students, whose engagement has wavered; in families, who have opted out of tests; in teachers, who have higher rates of job turnover; and in school leaders, who have short tenures in the career.

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Decades of accountability reform have not led to substantial differences in student learning or closed the achievement gap.

A single Colorado Measures of Academic Success, or CMAS, test score cannot capture the importance of the teacher who goes the extra mile to assuage student fears, make them feel loved or to make them laugh in times of stress.

School accountability scores don’t reflect all that leaders and teachers do to ensure kids are safe and well-fed. Educators and families have been saying this for years, but the hope is that policymakers will take this opportunity to redefine accountability to include a wider array of ways schools serve students and families.

This could be the opportunity to rethink how to evaluate the success of schools without relying heavily on a test.

In her daily Facebook live update on April 2, DPS Superintendent, Susana Cordova said this is an opportunity to not worry about seat time, attendance and grades.

She emphasized the importance of connecting with the students, easing their worries and helping them develop new routines. All of these actions are important for teachers to consider whether meeting with students face-to-face or remotely. 

Similarly, Jefferson County superintendent, Jason Glass, in his message to the community announcing the transition to remote learning suggested that this was a great opportunity to focus on competency-based learning.

Competency-based learning is usually touted for being more learner-centric and for measuring learning by individual student gains rather than standardized, aggregated CMAS testing.

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Other local superintendents have echoed the sentiment that teachers and leaders must attend to students’ emotional states before engaging in learning and have seen the opportunity for innovation as a result of this unplanned disruption.

This experience has helped reveal all that schools do to support students beyond just preparing them to pass a test. CMAS standardized testing was canceled this spring.

Next year, it will be difficult to hold students accountable for passing current versions of the test, based on several months of interrupted curriculum.

It seems like the perfect opportunity for Colorado and other states to use what they’ve learned in this experience to disrupt the current system and to redefine accountability to include the whole host of purposes public schools serve in their communities and society as a whole. 


Erin Anderson is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver.


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