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James Kirylo: COVID-19 and Standardized Testing

April 14, 2020

Dr. James D. Kirylo is a professor of education at the University of South Carolina.



James Kirylo

In his piece below, Kirylo considers the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic upon standardized-test-dependent accountability. (A quick note: Kirylo briefly interviewed me for this article.)

COVID-19 and Standardized Testing

James D. Kirylo

COVID-19 has obviously rocked our world, forcing us to change and adapt in so many different ways, including how we do K-12 schooling. Itis trulyquite remarkable how educators across the country have rapidly responded by exclusively shifting to an online format for the nearly 57 million K-12 students in the U.S.

Making that shift has not been easy, nor has it been simple to do for students and their parents/caregivers, even more heightened for those who are limited with technological or internet access at home. In addition to the change to the online delivery format, school systems all over the country are scrambling around on how to go about assessing and evaluating students.

In short, the action of assessment is the tools (e.g., teacher-constructed tests, portfolios, standardized tests) that are used to evaluate students through some kind of grading system.And when it comes to standardized testing which are mandated by the federal government under the reauthorization of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), this translates into state assessment and accountability systems across the country using test scores as an evaluative tool to play a part in student grade level promotion and graduation, the evaluation of teachers, and the rankings of schools.

Yet, COVID-19 presents an interesting dilemma because the US Department of Educationhas allowed states the discretion to waive the testing mandate this year. Indeed, states all over the country have already suspended all testing, and I suspect when all is said and done all fifty states will cancel.

So, then, under ESSA guidelines, how will states go about providing for the public some kind of state assessment and accountability report for the 2019-2020 academic year? They won’t. Moreover, what impact will the waiving of the tests have on the contracts made with the test-making vendors? In a conversation with educational researcher and teacher, Dr. Mercedes Schneider, there is no one answer to that question.

That is, as Schneider shares, contracts vary from state to state, sometimes with contracts being district or school specific. Moreover, the contracts may have clauses or contingencies until services or rendered. If there are no services, no payment is due. Still, other contracts may have non-refundable deposits or there may be a deadline for the contract with certain fees or dues, tied to the delivery of testing materials and the grading of tests.

Finally, it is possible that states bounded by these contractscan apply for some kind of hardship or alternatives under the circumstances we find ourselves. Time will only tell how this all unfolds. In the end, regardless how these testing contracts are handled, we know that collectively the states annually spend approximately $1.7 billion on standardized tests.

During this period of uncertainty and the pause that has been handed to us with respect to standardized testing, perhaps it might be a good time to rethink how we use these tests and also consider the costs of them.

For example, should we, in fact, use these tests as a promotional tool to the next grade level or to graduate from high school when we know that many colleges and universities are no longer using ACT and SAT scores as an entrance requirement, and many more are suspending their requirement as a result of COVID-19.

In addition, we know that thousands of parents of K-12 children from around the country have opted out their children from taking annual standardized tests, citing the stress it puts on them, that it forces teachers to teach to the test—thus narrowing the curriculum, and that teachers should not be evaluated by test scores. Indeed, a growing number of states have now opt-out policiesin place that favors the wishes of parents.

In the book The Wisdom and Wit of Diane Ravitch, U.S. education historian, Diane Ravitch, asserts that while teachers are the most important element in the classroom, the quality of the teacher only impacts between 10-20-percent of student test score gainsof students, with the rest of the influence coming from non-school factors such as the family background of students, economic status, and other influences, all of which are beyond the control of educators.

In that light, wouldn’t it be intellectually honest to rethink whether it is fair and just to evaluate teachers—and by extension the rating of schools—based on standardized test scores. Several states are beginning to think so.

As we consider the costs of standardized tests, one can only wonder how $1.7 billion can be used in other ways. Perhaps working toward making reducing class sizes would be good. It also might be a good idea to working on fixing the K-12 digital divide which has been clearly exposed because of the crisis.

Many schools don’t have librarians or quality libraries. That would be a good project. It would be great if we could provide more school nurses, psychologists, and medical care for many of our students in underserved communities. Expanding the arts in all its forms to all schools would be awesome.

Finally, when it comes to the notion of accountability, good teacher-made tests are effective, along with quality portfolio assessment systems in order to determine and evaluate how students are doing. Moreover, we already have in place what is called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which are norm-referenced tests given every two years across the country. Sometimes referred to as the nation’s report card, these tests provide for us a window into how students are faring, helping to inform us on how to best work with our K-12 students.

In the end, this COVID-19 scare has all of us thinking all kinds of things, including providing an opportunity to rethink how standardized tests are being used and the associated costs it places on school systems.



My latest book, A Practical Guide to Digital Research: Getting the Facts and Rejecting the Lies, is now available for purchase on Amazon and via Garn Press!


Follow me on Twitter @deutsch29blog


  1. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    James Kirylo was wise to seek your judgment. The matter of contracts for testing needs much more attention. In Ohio the debunked use of VAM (value-added measures) from SAS, Inc. persists and the contracts are written so there is no possibility of independent judgment about their reliability, validity, and appropriateness– for “proprietary” reasons.

    ESSA-mandated tests and ESSA-manded state report cards are also obstacles in getting rid of the national obsession with test scores as if these were predicates for everything worth while in life.

  2. How can a teacher be graded fairly when he/she has no control over the student? Grading students, teachers and schools under the circumstances is unfair and illogical.

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