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Back in the days before the pandemic, federal law required American public schools to test students in grades 3-8 each year against math and reading standards. The US Department of Education recently announced that after being canceled last year, testing will resume this spring. But what does that actually mean for students and families?

If you’re thinking, “Wait, what? Our kids have barely been in school this year, we’re still living through a global pandemic, and they’re going to test them?”... well, you’re not alone. We hear you. Here’s what you need to know about testing this year so you can make an informed choice about whether or not you want your children to participate.


The first thing to understand is that this year’s tests are going to look and feel different. The Education Department is giving states considerable flexibility on testing—including what the tests look like (they could be shorter than usual, for example); when they’re administered (they could offer them during the summer or even next fall); and how they’re used (school accountability can still be paused).


On top of that, the actual test-taking experience will be different for students. Because of social distancing requirements, in-person tests will likely be offered on multiple days for smaller groups of students. Tests might even be offered remotely.


Will the results be worth the fuss, though? After such a haphazard year of learning for everyone, it’s tempting to think tests are a wholesale waste of time. But the reality is a little more complicated. While families and educators alike have been (rightly) focused on helping students get through a very difficult year—and many of the lessons learned are not captured on tests—there’s still some value in looking at, say, reading or math outcomes.

“Schools need to understand what the last year of interrupted learning has done. How much catch-up do they need to play?”

On an individual level, parents may want to know if their child has fallen behind where they used to be in terms of core academic skills. Our recent research shows that even third and fourth grade test scores do predict longer-term academic outcomes, like high school graduation and completing challenging high school coursework—and if test scores in elementary school flag any concerns, there’s still plenty of time to address those areas of need. So that’s one reason parents may not want their children to skip a second year of testing in a row. For full transparency, it’s information I want about my own kids—but I know not everyone feels that way.


On top of that, there are bigger picture questions that tests can help answer. Schools need to understand what the last year of interrupted learning has done. How much catch-up do they need to play? On which skills? Some of the work ahead goes beyond academics, certainly—boosting mental health support for young people is a given, for example. But testing could still illuminate other areas of need, how much progress English language learners have been able to make this year when much of the instruction was virtual.


Bottom line? Before you make any decisions about your own children’s test-taking this spring, tune into what’s happening locally. Your district should provide you with information about the test structure, when they’re happening, and what options you have for opting out if you choose to do so. If you think tests are going to add stress for your kids in an already anxious time, it’s perfectly reasonable to opt out. But if you think your school is going to offer tests in a way that seems acceptable for your children, you (and next year’s teachers) might get some useful information from them.

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