“Students and teachers are nearing a breaking point…”

The pandemic reignited the debate over shifting away from high-stakes testing to a more balanced assessment approach that’s part of the regular instructional cycle. Many parents and education leaders alike hoped this would be the catalyst for ending high-stakes testing entirely, or at least shift the focus toward assessments that drive better supports for students. And while some progress has been made, new research from Instructure, the makers of Canvas, suggests we’re at a pivotal moment for changing K-12 assessment.

In the spring of 2020, school closures forced the cancellation of state summative assessments in all 50 states for the first time since the No Child Left Behind era began in 2002. States did without the data used for high-stakes decisions such as A-F grading of individual schools, and educators were left to look to other methods to evaluate learning.

Since then, there have been nearly unanimous calls to create assessments that provide teachers with real-time information to help guide and direct student learning. Now in the third year impacted by the pandemic as the effects of COVID-19 continue, measuring and addressing student learning is even more critical amidst the frequent disruptions. Nonetheless, schools around the country are once again preparing to head into another round of spring standardized testing.

Why can’t we break free of high-stakes testing?

According to Instructure’s recent “State of Assessment in K-12 Education,” 81% of educators remain concerned that summative assessments are making students anxious, and teachers and administrators want to move to a more balanced assessment approach.

Experts have long established a link between stress caused by high-stakes testing and students’ performance on those tests, with economically disadvantaged students more negatively impacted. At the same time, many insist the tests are crucial to evaluating school efficacy and measuring long-term potential in students.

The Instructure data shows that while districts are still using high-stakes summative testing for accountability, many are increasingly using interim and formative assessment to assess and improve learning throughout the disruption, from remote learning to absences to school closures. These shorter, more frequent tests give teachers data they can act on—essential for addressing unfinished learning and equity.

While the data suggests that 94% of educators are now using formative assessments and 81% are using interim assessments to support student learning, more help is needed. An overwhelming majority (84%) of teachers are having to create their own assessments, and more than half say they spend too much time doing so—a growing problem for a nation of educators already overworked and overwhelmed. A new study by the National Education Association (NEA) reports that 55% of America’s teachers say they are ready to leave the profession due to burn out.

Education leaders affirm that to make lasting change, we must create systems and supports that implement a more balanced approach to assessment at state and district levels.

One way the COVID crisis has spurred positive action

To-date, Congress has passed three stimulus bills that provided nearly $279 billion as relief aid for education through the Education Stabilization Fund, which includes specific funding earmarked for addressing “learning loss.” For example, the most recent bill–the American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA–stipulates that states set aside 5% of funding, and that local educational agencies set aside 20% of their allotment for this purpose.

Some have used these funds to invest in high-quality, reliable assessments that are aligned to state standards, as well as technology systems that drive meaningful instructional practice, and provide insights that fuel a personalized learning experience. These investments will support school communities beyond the pandemic’s immediate impacts.

According to Instructure, three-quarters of educators say that their school already provides training and support to help teachers improve assessment data literacy. Two-thirds of educators (67%) are comfortable with using assessment data to inform instruction, but fewer are comfortable using data to design interventions (52%) or evaluate their own efficacy (58%).

Students and teachers are nearing a breaking point

And while the need to understand how COVID has impacted learning is urgent, the biggest challenge is doing so without causing more anxiety for students and teachers. Numerous studies have tracked significant increases in mental health issues for students in the past two years.

A new meta-analysis of 29 studies in the journal JAMA Pediatrics estimates that the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19 has doubled for children and adolescents, to 25.2% and 20.5%, respectively. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents increased 31% in 2020 compared to 2019.

Ultimately, the biggest factor in successfully evolving assessment approaches is shifting students’ (and parents’) perspectives on the role of assessment itself–away from grades and test scores, to demonstrating what they know and where they need more help. Advocates for high-stakes assessment reform have lauded the decision by over 1800 colleges and universities to make SAT and ACT testing optional for admissions as an important step.

Parents can also play a major role. It’s not uncommon for parents to unknowingly—and with the best of intentions—contribute to student test anxiety. By setting the right expectations at home, parents can help to reduce the ever-growing pressure on students during this continued period of uncertainty, and change.