Standardized Tests Can Promote Rigor

Their use should be watched, but they shouldn't be eliminated, writes Matthew Pietrafetta.

August 24, 2020
 
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Well before the current outbreak of COVID-19, skeptics questioned the value of standardized testing as a college admissions requirement. Some argue this pandemic, however, will be the final nail in the testing coffin. As this outlet has pointed out, the majority of colleges are now test optional or test blind, and headlines proclaim “the beginning of the end” for standardized tests or (put more simply) “Kill the SAT.”

There is another side to this story, however, that should not be left out: standardized tests can  -- when used constructively and administered safely  -- drive higher standards in education and more rigorous, targeted instruction for students in essential college readiness skills. Too often, standardized tests are created as a single moment in students' lives: they take the test, they receive a score and they move on. Instead, we have found that college entrance exams can be used as powerful learning opportunities to help students master academic skills. These skills help students succeed both on and beyond the tests  -- in high school, in college and in their careers. The conversation about college readiness and quality of instruction should include a careful and intentional review of student performance on standardized tests. Indeed, we believe that standardized tests can be a valuable tool for educators to better prepare students for college-level work.

With continued remote learning anticipated well into the 2020-21 school year, we predict a continued amplification effect to extended summer learning loss. The increased time out of the physical classroom has led to research predicting increased losses in foundational skills for students returning this fall, a phenomenon now commonly called the “COVID slide.” Current research predicts students may retain only 50 percent of the gains they made in math during the 2019-20 school year, which was abruptly cut short as the nation went into lockdown.

In such a unique year, the value of standardized testing to assess year-over-year trends in student gains and losses may be a more valuable instrument to educators than ever.

In its May research and policy brief, ACT shared its student performance estimates based on historical data and predicted the impact of remote learning on ACT performance.

The table below summarizes the research on typical per-month gains for students in school versus out of school.

What does it add up to? Typically, an ACT composite score increases by 1.96 points over a school year and decreases by 0.43 points over the summer -- a net gain of 1.53 points per year. By shifting two months of classroom instruction to typical summer losses (to reflect inconsistent approaches to remote learning in the spring), students would instead see a net gain of only 0.82 points per year.

This seemingly small decrease in ACT scores can in fact indicate a large effect on overall student achievement and college readiness, admissions and scholarship eligibility across districts and states. With months of remote learning ahead, the deficit may grow.

Beyond just serving as a measure of current achievement, high-quality tests create gravitational pull toward higher achievement; a feature of higher performing education systems is a rigorous, common assessment. In our work with teachers and school leaders, we’ve found the rigor and challenge of the SAT and ACT to be important benchmarks in assessing the level of work provided to students in the classroom.

We know it’s essential to provide high-rigor tasks to students in the classroom, especially in lower-income schools and communities. However, there are significant barriers to college readiness: Opportunity Myth found that while more than 80 percent of teachers supported standards for college readiness in theory, less than half had the expectation that their students could reach those standards. This gap in expectations has a real impact on what students see in the classroom: though students were successful on 71 percent of assignments given to them in the classroom, they met grade-level standards on only 17 percent of those same assignments.

Though the ACT and SAT are certainly only two of many sources teachers can use to design instruction in their classrooms, we know rigorous assessments can lead to more rigorous instruction. At the very least, they provide some insight into the level of difficulty expected by high school students across the country. These tests offer important reference points against GPAs that vary from school to school, provide ambitious standards against which to measure, drive skills-based instruction and motivate students to learn.

High-quality tests serve positive instructional ends: they shed light on mastery of college-readiness skills, help students identify important gaps in skills and understanding of material, and afford instructors insights to better individualize their curriculum to the needs of their students. However, it’s important to recognize that these tests are not unimpeachable. There are legitimate concerns about their content and validity, and we support efforts to improve the ACT and SAT and assure they are assessing important skills for college success.

We believe that high-stakes tests should trend more in the direction of formative assessments, designed to measure student growth while students are still actively learning the material. They are aligned clearly with grade-level curriculum and more directly drive student learning through ongoing feedback and reassessment. The ACT and SAT -- when used for ongoing data analysis -- can serve this same role.

Though we believe the primary role of the ACT and SAT is to help diagnose and improve teaching and learning for students, they still can and perhaps should have a role in college admissions. A strong score can be important for many students because -- even this year -- most colleges are not test blind, meaning they do take scores into account when scores are submitted, but rather test optional, allowing students the opportunity to submit test scores should they believe they will strengthen their application. Providing access to the SAT and ACT for all students does allow more students to access higher education. Ultimately, however, we must address the reasons why scores often correlate so strongly with income by addressing inequities throughout our K-12 education system that lead to gaps in test performance. For those who lack opportunity or access to standardized tests during COVID-19, it is positive that test-optional policies afford them the opportunity for a holistic review.

Standardized tests should not be the be-all, end-all of a student’s college application. They should count as one metric among many, in a proper, holistic evaluation of a student, and, ultimately, they should serve students. In other words, the scores need to be considered in context with other admissions standards, especially given the inequities in our current educational landscape. The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently released a task force report strongly encouraging colleges to review the impact of standardized testing on their process to ensure that it doesn’t worsen inequity, and we agree.

Improper use of standardized testing can have a grave impact, and it’s essential that we as educators strive to use them as fairly and equitably as possible and approach them as a valuable means to an academic end: improved teaching and learning. Especially now, when the importance of high-quality assessment of learning (and learning loss) is so essential for our neediest students, we support the use of rigorous assessments like the ACT and SAT in driving toward more ambitious teaching and learning.

Bio

Matthew Pietrafetta is the founder and CEO of Academic Approach, an organization that offers one-on-one tutoring and school programs that empower students and educators from all backgrounds to increase scores, skills and confidence both on and beyond standardized tests.

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