By David DeMatthews, PhD, David S. Knight, PhD, and Sarah Woulfin, PhD

The pandemic had a significant impact not only on the way public schools provided instruction to students, but also on myriad aspects of each child’s life. As schools reopen and begin to make sense of standardized testing data from the 2020-21 school year, principals and teachers should be thoughtful about how they use these data to support students.

Principals and teachers must first recognize the inherent flaws in the testing system, particularly standardized testing from Spring 2021, and be prepared to speak up when policymakers, supervisors or colleagues make decisions based on misinterpretations of data. The prior school year was unique given the impact of COVID-19 on communities as was the testing environment and sample of students since some families opted out of testing.

For example, if students who chose remote instruction over in-person learning scored lower on standardized tests, that might be related to other factors beyond instructional modality. Without data on why students chose to stay home, educators should avoid drawing inferences about the impact of online versus face-to-face instruction.

We have already heard of some troubling usages of testing data. For example, some district leaders and principals have deprioritized pre-existing programs such as outdoor learning opportunities or mental health curriculum to focus greater attention towards mathematics and reading. In some districts, principal supervisors are pressuring principals to “catch up” with nearby campuses after test scores declined. Educators should push back on decisions that deny students access to a rich, comprehensive curriculum or create a toxic accountability culture for educators.

Though the 2020-21 testing data is imperfect, schools should not neglect its implications for historically marginalized student groups. Researchers have found evidence that COVID-19 has had a significant negative impact on student achievement. Students experiencing poverty, students of color, students with disabilities, and English learner (EL) students have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic because they were more likely to be personally affected by COVID-19, lacked access to the internet or devices, and/or because schools struggled to deliver supports and interventions necessary to meet their needs.

Principals and teachers should engage families, working together to prioritize resources, and offering intensive support. Testing data on many campuses will likely confirm national trends, and, therefore, should be used in the school improvement process to support additional academic interventions and guide audits tracking which students with disabilities and EL students did not receive appropriate services during the pandemic.

Principals and teachers could compare their standardized test scores with scores from other benchmark assessments given throughout the prior year, such as NWEA or MAP assessments. They could also compare testing results from prior years. Using multiple data points would provide educators with a clearer—and more accurate—picture of student strengths and areas of growth.

Teachers across grade levels may want to look at standardized testing data as well as other student work to identify any broad trends that can inform the focus and nature of professional development in the building. For example, a school could use evidence in deciding to target fourth grade reading instruction, and then deliver additional supports (e.g., instructional coaching) to fourth grade teachers on reading.

Testing data may also be reviewed in PLCs and within grade levels or subject areas. If teachers are given the opportunity to discuss multiple types of student data, they will be more likely to improve their instruction. Teachers can draw on these data along with other information to create their own assessments in the 2021-22 school year.

Testing data can be insightful, aiding principals and teachers to plan and prioritize improvement efforts. Yet schools should be cautious to not overly rely on testing data, especially following a year with significant testing implementation challenges that limit the conclusions that can be drawn. Instead, schools need to learn what they can from multiple forms of data, prioritize the students with the greatest needs, and ensure teachers are not overwhelmed with data analysis so that they can have the necessary time to create engaging, inclusive, and culturally responsive classrooms.

Dr. David DeMatthews is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. David S. Knight is an assistant professor of education finance and policy at The University of Washington.

Dr. Sarah Woulfin is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.

TEPSA News, September/October 2021, Vol 78, No 5

Copyright © 2021 by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. No part of articles in TEPSA publications or on the website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 5,900 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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