Chris Jakicic, EdD, an author and a consultant, was principal of Woodlawn Middle School in Illinois from 1999 to 2007. She began her career teaching middle school science.

High-Stakes Testing in A Remote Teaching World

While it may be the last thing on many teachers’ minds right now, states are likely making decisions about how to proceed with high-stakes testing for this upcoming spring. 

In their most recent journal, Kappan (2020) published “This Spring, Test only to Assess,” an article that really resonated with me, and aligned with many of the things I’m hearing teachers are worried about for their students.

The author’s argument, as indicated in the title, is that states should not hold schools and districts accountable for end-of-year tests this spring, similarly to how states reacted last spring when schools had to pivot to remote teaching. However, the author does recommend that states administer those tests so that schools can monitor student growth and achievement.

Teachers Need to Know About Possible Gaps in Learning 

“During the present crisis, we need to know how our students are doing.” (Weiner, 2020, p.1)

By administering end-of-year summative tests, teachers would have access to aggregated data around their students’ current level of learning on state standards, which is the information many schools use to write and monitor SMART goals for their school as a whole as well as for collaborative teams. 

SMART goals allow teams to set specific goals for student learning and monitor their work for its effectiveness. This means that teachers have access to actual data around their own students’ achievement, and this also allows them to make decisions about instructional practices, their use of time, and the efficacy of their curriculum. Using this process effectively assumes that teachers have access to both end-of-the-year and interim measures of student learning in at least math and literacy. 

Collaborative teams use the most recent data set as a starting point and establish stretch goals in each content area. They build an action plan that includes identifying specific data points they will use to periodically check the effectiveness of the actions in their plan. By using a similar state test to the one used in 2019, teachers would also have longitudinal data for individual students to make decisions about how to fill in any learning gaps that were the result of factors related to remote learning including loss of actual instructional time.

Educators Fear the COVID Slide

Even without data about end-of-year learning for their students from last year, most teachers anecdotally describe students as starting this year behind in the typical learning they are used to students having. 

Calling it the “COVID slide,” researchers from Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) (Kuhfeld & Tarasawa, 2020) used their massive data resources to predict what impact remote teaching would have on learning from the 2019-2020 school year. They concluded that students would have about 70% of the typical learning gains in reading, and 50% of the typical learning gains in math.

“…These preliminary forecasts parallel many education leaders’ fears: missing school for a prolonged period will likely have major impacts on student achievement come fall 2020.” (Kuhfeld & Tarasawa, 2020, p. 4)

Most educators knew they would have to identify and teach at least some prerequisite skills they were used to students having mastered in the past. In many cases, they developed their own measures to align their teaching to the identified gaps. They also know that if end-of-year tests are used for accountability purposes this spring, far more schools will fail to meet proficiency expectations despite everything they’ve done to move their students forward in learning. 

They fear that they will be held responsible for situations over which they had no control.

Understanding and Accounting for Opportunity to Learn (OTL)

When schools pivoted to remote teaching this past spring, they did so with very little warning and preparation. Some schools had to first consider how they would make sure their neediest students had access to breakfast and lunch, since their schools had become the place they got their meals. Other schools and districts faced gaps in the resources their students had, such as quality Wi-Fi and electronic devices that could effectively help teachers deliver virtual lessons. 

With this in mind, I found it interesting that researchers from the Center of Improvement of Educational Assessment suggest that this year’s data might be more effective if disaggregated for additional groups, including those students who didn’t have access to high-speed internet and quality devices, as well as those students whose parents weren’t available to monitor their online learning (King, Boyer, & Marion, 2020). They use the term “Opportunity to Learn” to describe the difference gap between students who had specific resources needed for remote learning and those who didn’t.

“…OTL loss will likely differ based on the student’s demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. States, and their assessment providers, therefore should closely examine and identify operational psychometric procedures that are potentially affected by the OTL loss and other COVID-related context effects.” (King, Boyer, & Marion, 2020, p. 55.)

In the same article, the authors recommend that states consider several alternate scenarios if they administer end-of-year tests this spring, including changing their test blueprints to include only priority standards using the same tests as 2019 (and removing any sensitive items related to the pandemic that might be traumatic for students). The authors also suggested adding additional field test items that might help reveal the impact of remote teaching, and perhaps even allowing students to take this test in their home, if needed. 

The Covid Impact Is Ongoing

States might be concerned about eliminating the accountability from high-stakes testing. However, the reality is that teachers and schools are under enormous stress right now juggling remote teaching, hybrid models, changes in the amount of time they have access to students, pre-assessing for gaps from last year, and remediating missed learning. 

This novel situation is something no one has experienced or planned for before this year, meaning there is no known right way to do things. Some schools have teachers teaching both remote classes as well as face-to-face classes at the same time. Others have cohorts of students attending in-person two days a week, and completing assignments remotely the other two days. If someone in a cohort tests positive for COVID, the cohort is required to stay at home until they are safe. 

Some schools have required parents to choose either remote or face-to-face instruction for the entire semester or year. And we’ve seen some schools who, after several months of remote learning, brought students back to school. Unfortunately, some of these schools have had to pivot back to remote learning due to surges of COVID in their communities. Many schools are facing substitute shortages due to teachers choosing retirement at the start of the school year, as well as using substitutes to fill in for teachers who need to quarantine. 

Data for the Right Reason Is Important

As they are making decisions about the end-of-year tests to be administered this spring, states could capitalize on the fact that schools want data to thoughtfully complete their yearly school and team goals. They need data that can help them identify gaps in student learning so they can be remedied. 

At the same time, states should recognize that, with so many factors outside the control of schools, holding them accountable for results will only exacerbate the issues around equity of resources—especially in communities where high-speed internet, quality devices, and parent support are lacking. 


King, L., Boyer, M., & Marion, S. (2020). Into the unknown: Assessment in Spring 2021. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 39(3). 

Kuhfeld, M., & Tarasawa, B. (2020) The Covid-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the impact of school closures on student academic achievement. Accessed at on October 31, 2020.

Wiener, R. (2020). This spring, test only to assess. Phi Delta Kappan. Accessed at on October 31, 2020.

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