February 26th, 2021

Q&A: Statewide Assessments - Why They Matter

Standardized tests can be frustrating for students and families. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be that statewide assessments are the last thing you, as a parent, want your student to participate in. But the U.S. Department of Education recently reminded states of their obligations and encouraged them to administer assessments this year to the extent they are able. 

Because there are many myths and misconceptions about why these tests matter and how the results are used, NCLD created this Q&A. It aims to answer some of the questions we’ve heard lately and explains why we need to pay attention to how our schools are doing, and not just our students, especially as we recover from the pandemic.  

Q. Why does my student need to take a state assessment?

Our education system has a long history of excluding and denying students with disabilities from meaningful education and high-quality opportunities. Not too long ago, when statewide assessments were given to students, they were not given to students with disabilities. Sometimes students with disabilities would be told to stay home, or they would be sent on field trips instead. As a result, when we saw the scores of how well students were doing in areas like reading or math, it was only a picture of how well students without disabilities were doing. No one was paying attention to how students with disabilities were being served. 

A shift was made in the early 2000’s to require states to assess all students and to inform the public of how different subgroups like students with disabilities performed on those tests. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—the federal education law that governs general education in public schools across the country—was passed in 2015 and requires states to administer assessments in grades three through eight and once in high school. It requires that 95% of students participate in these tests and it requires that nearly all students with disabilities take the same test as students without disabilities.

By requiring that students with disabilities take the same test as their peers, it requires schools to start thinking about students with disabilities when designing learning opportunities and setting goals. It is one of the most important levers we have in ensuring that students with disabilities are included in general education and are held to high standards. Some states require students to pass the state assessment in order to move on to the next grade. We know that with the right supports, students with disabilities can and do achieve at grade-level standards.

Q. Can state assessments be biased or flawed?

There are many critiques of standardized state assessments, including that they are biased. There is evidence that some assessments do not accurately capture the performance of students with particular experiences, cultural backgrounds, and different levels of exposure to the content on which these tests are based. Test developers should continue making improvements in the development and administration of statewide assessments to ensure that every student has an equal chance at performing well and truly demonstrating what they know. And school districts should continue to implement formative assessments that provide timely information that educators can use to improve instruction in real-time. 

However, when you reflect on the history—the fact that our system has long excluded students with disabilities from these assessments—it is important to fight for their inclusion as long as all students are being tested. Even if assessments are imperfect, having data is more important than being in the dark about how well we are educating students with disabilities. 

Q. What is the purpose of state assessments?

Statewide assessments are meant to show a snapshot of how the school system as a whole is performing, not how each student is performing. These assessments provide education leaders information about how students as a whole are being educated each year, so that they can make decisions to improve staffing, provide targeted resources and support to different schools, and improve student achievement over time. For example, the information we get from assessments that your student takes in grade 3 will inform changes made for future 3rd graders, and for your student when they get to 5th or 6th grade. The results of these assessments can help identify trends in learning, such as where we are falling short for students and where changes should be made going forward. This is especially important if groups of students as a whole, such as students with disabilities, are being underserved. Assessment information gleaned from these statewide assessments also helps target resources to high need schools or schools where we are not serving large groups of students well.

Statewide assessments are called “summative” assessments but there are many kinds of other assessments, and this chart helps explain when different kinds of assessments can be useful. For example:

  • Screeners are quick assessments that help measure a student’s skill in specific areas. Screeners can help inform instruction and skill development. 
  • Formative assessments are also short assessments that are given repeatedly over time to see how well a student is learning and how effective their instruction is. Formative assessments can help inform instruction based on a student’s progress.
  • Summative assessments are longer tests that are given at the end of some period of time (the end of a unit, or a year) to determine how much a student has learned in that period of time. These tests might determine a student’s grade or credits earned. Summative assessments do not usually inform instruction because they look back over time, after the learning has taken place. Summative assessments might be designed by the state so that every school district uses the same test, and these are considered comparable assessments. Or, they could be designed by districts themselves, in which case your student can’t be compared to students across the state.

Q. Why can’t we use local assessments instead of statewide assessments?

Local districts might develop their own formative assessments in subjects like reading and math. While these assessments can help pinpoint how individual students are doing compared to others in the district, the tests are not required to be aligned to grade-level standards, students may not be assessed on an appropriate grade-level, and the tests cannot be used to compare students from one district to the next. 

In addition, your student may not be offered the same accommodations on a local assessment that they are entitled to on a statewide test. This is because the federal law (ESSA) that requires statewide assessments also requires students to receive appropriate accommodations on those tests. But there is no similar requirement applied to districts who want to give their own assessments. So your student might not be able to truly show what they know on a local assessment if they are not given accommodations they need (like extra time, a quiet testing space, or more). 

Finally, local assessments may not actually be available to all students with disabilities. The statewide assessment has an alternate version known as an “alternate assessment based on alternate achievement standards” (AA-AAS). The AA-AAS is designed for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities and is aligned to different standards than the test given to general education students. But local assessments don’t offer an alternate assessment. So while the majority of students with disabilities will be tested on the local assessment along with their general education peers, there is no way to measure the achievement of students with significant cognitive disabilities. This paints an incomplete picture and leaves out an entire segment of students. 

Q. What does “high stakes” assessments mean?

The federal law that requires states to administer these tests (ESSA) only requires that they be given at certain points (each year in 3rd through 8th grade and once in high school) and that 95% of students participate. The law also requires that the results of these assessments, among other measures of achievement such as access to Advanced Placement courses, graduation rates, and whether students feel supported in school, be used to determine which schools are the “lowest performing.” Schools identified as lowest performing are where students are most underserved, or where teaching is not as effective as it needs to be. The “stakes” for schools and districts is the potential to be identified as “low performing” compared to other schools. But this can be a good thing! Schools that are not performing well need additional support and resources to take corrective action to help students make progress. Statewide assessments are just one measure schools use to determine where to put their resources. 

However, states can set additional rules that put even more emphasis on these tests. In your state, your student might be required to pass the statewide assessment to move on to the next grade, or to graduate from high school. In some places, teacher evaluations might be based in part on how their students perform on these tests. Those decisions are made by each state, and not required by federal law. 

Q. Do state assessments determine whether my student gets special education services?

No, state assessments are completely different from and unrelated to the special education evaluation process. If you request a special education evaluation because you believe your student may need additional support, your student’s evaluator might look at their scores on previous state assessments or other measures of progress. However, these tests do not determine whether your student has a disability or is entitled to special education.

Q. Why does my student have to take a grade-level assessment when we know they haven't had the support to reach grade-level standards?

Our current system prevents many students with disabilities from performing to the best of their abilities. It can be frustrating to require these students to participate in a test on when we haven’t set them up for success.  It can be hard to manage student anxiety around the tests as well. However, these tests are not designed to focus on the individual student’s level of performance. They are meant to show system-level data and whether certain groups of students need more attention. If we allowed students with disabilities to take tests at the grade level at which they are performing rather than the grade level in which they are enrolled, it would appear that those students are doing well, when in fact schools need to work harder and provide more effective strategies to help them catch up. By requiring students to take tests at the grade level in which they are enrolled, we can ensure that the gaps in achievement remain apparent and that steps are taken to ensure students with disabilities are supported in making meaningful progress.

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