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Already Stressed, Ohio Students Face Uncertainty Of Standardized Tests

Licking Heights High School freshmen take notes in a World History class taught by Amy Obhof..
Andy Chow
Ohio Public Radio
Licking Heights High School freshmen take notes in a World History class taught by Amy Obhof..

Michelle Karim teaches math at Beachwood Middle School in Cuyahoga County. Under the school’s hybrid model, she’s scrambling to keep pace with past years. 

“I’m running three to four weeks behind,” she said.

Even under the best of times, Karim acknowledges that getting ready for the spring testing period is stressful.

But the prospect of preparing online students to sit down for state tests starting as soon as this month ups the pressure.

“I don’t know if they’re going to be able to perform on the test in the way in which they’ve been able to,” Karim said.

She’s doing her best, but said that "it’s overwhelming.”

Students and teachers are all under stress as schools readjust to in-person learning. Part of that stress is preparing for mandated state testing after months of remote instruction.

Schools are required by federal law to test grades three through eight for math and reading each spring. In Ohio, the results are published as district report cards, and parents can use the scores to compare districts. Test scores are also used to rank schools and are even factored into teacher evaluations.

Lawmakers Sought To Stop The Tests

State lawmakers removed the evaluation provision during the pandemic last year, and Ohio House members from both parties, including state Rep. Jeff Crossman (D-Parma), had advocated canceling the tests altogether.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to me to force a pre-COVID test in a post-COVID world,” Crossman said.

The tests must be taken in person, and Crossman is concerned about safety as new coronavirus variants spread across the state. He also questions what new insights the tests will provide.

“People across the country are behind," he said. "We know that."

Although he doesn't offer an exact figure, Crossman says administering the tests runs into the tens of millions of dollars.

"There’s no reason spending the time and the money on standardized testing,” he added.

A Question Of Data

Ohio will go ahead with the tests after the Biden administration last month refused to consider state requests for waivers. The feds argue that standardized testing will provide detailed data on where students are following months of remote learning.

That resonates with state Superintendent Paola DeMaria, who says that good data will help his department understand what knowledge students have acquired during the pandemic.

He said that test scores will "give us feedback about new approaches that we’re trying.”

But DeMaria is hoping to change the way test results are used.

“We should have that data and extract the value from it without using it in any kind of punitive or judgmental way in terms of accountability,” he said.

An analysis of data from limited fall testing revealed that Ohio third-graders lost more than a month’s worth of learning during the pandemic, and the average proficiency rate in language scores fell by 9%.

Students in families hardest-hit economically fared worse. Black students’ scores fell by 14%.

Scott Marion is executive director of the Center for Assessments, a national think tank that designs testing systems. He says there are too many variables in students’ lives right now, like spotty internet access, remote versus in-person learning, or family stressors to have any kind of fair assessment.

“We used to worry about things like moving a test question from the third position on the test to the 20th position on the test," Marion said. "And the kinds of shock waves that we’re seeing in the pandemic are much different than that.”

Rather than measuring lost learning, Marion says the tests should be used to set a baseline for the future.

“I think it will not so much tell me the problems from the past, but it will also help me monitor our ability to make up ground going forward,” Marion said.

He says state testing scores this year will come with a lot of caveats.

A Little Breathing Room

State legislators are scrambling to figure out what all those caveats will be, but have ruled out using scores to sanction or penalize poorly performing districts.

All that Karim is asking for is a little breathing room.

“If there was ever a year that I could use more time, this is it,” she said.

The mandated math and language arts tests will still begin at the end of this month, though the state has extended the testing window by up to two weeks.

Still, students and teachers who’ve been working remotely for most of the past year will sit down to a slate of state testing soon after they’re back in buildings.

This story is part of WKSU’s "Learning Curve,” a statewide multimedia collaborative looking at the challenges and opportunities facing public education in Ohio.