COMMENTARY: Why Assessments Matter for Latino Students

Six-year-old Valentina Palomares is a first-grade English learner in Tucson, AZ. She’s struggling to get the support she needs online to keep up with the class. Photo by Lydia Palomares. 

Amalia Chamorro, Director, Education Policy Project, UnidosUS 

Last spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools and the education system pivoted to distance learning, the U.S. Department of Education waived annual assessment requirements for all 50 states. In the 2020-21 school year, there has been a robust debate on whether to resume annual assessments.  

On February 22, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) issued its much-anticipated guidance on annual assessments. In its Dear Colleague Letter on Accountability, School Improvement, and Assessments for School Year 2021-22, ED makes it clear that it will not be inviting states to request blanket waivers on the administration of these tests but will provide flexibilities and waivers on how these tests are used for accountability purposes during the 2021-22 school year. ED made this critical decision recognizing the important role that assessments play in advancing educational equity 

UnidosUS joined more than 40 civil rights and education advocacy partners including The Education Trust, National Urban League, and National Center for Learning Disabilities to issue a statement in response to EDs updated guidance, “We are pleased to see that the U.S. Department of Education will not consider blanket waivers of the critical civil rights component of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that requires high quality, statewide assessments. Data on multiple measures, including school climate, student access to resources and opportunities, and student learning outcomes, are essential tools to address systemic inequities in our education system, as well as to gauge the quality of instruction and support offered under COVID-19 restrictions.” 

UnidosUS believes that all students should have access to high quality education and equitable access to resources, along with expectations and preparation to meet high academic standards as other students throughout their school years. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the reauthorization of the overarching federal K12 law enacted in 2015, student progress and English language proficiency must be measured and reported annually. Annual statewide assessments have helped reveal longstanding opportunity gaps and racial disparities in academic attainment and provide a powerful tool to understanding where Latino students stand on their path to success 

When we see how the education of students of color, English learners (ELs), and students with disabilities has been disproportionately disrupted by the pandemic, it is critical that we have objective, comparable data to measure the impact on student learning over the last year and better target resources to the students with the greatest needs. The American Rescue Plan Act, for example, provides $130 billion for K-12, an unprecedented investment by the federal government in our public schools, and data from annual assessments can provide a powerful tool for states to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources.  

Key provisions of ED’s guidance include: 

Data Transparency 

The Department will maintain requirements to disaggregate data by student subgroup and require all states to publicly report disaggregated chronic absenteeism data and, to the extent the state or school district already collects such information, data on student and educator access to technology devices like laptops or tablets and to high-speed internet at home. 

UnidosUS is committed to transparency on student progress, and we are encouraged that ED also recognizes the need for the continued collection and disaggregation of data by subgroupsuch as ELsto measure how these students are doing meeting learning targets and to detect and address opportunity gaps that may have widened. In addition, there is much we can learn from data on students who have not been logging in to virtual classrooms or experienced a significant drop in attendance, as well as students who have struggled with the digital divide, as one-third of Latino households lacked high speed internet pre-COVID-19. This data can help augment and paint a more complete picture of student learning over the past year, as well as provide useful context to unpack assessments data. Having objective, comparable, disaggregated data, will better equip policymakers, educators, parents, and advocates to identify and address student learning loss more effectively. 

Accountability Waiver 

While the guidance asserts that no blanket waivers will be issued, states are invited to request a waiver for the 2020-21 school year of the accountability and school identification requirements in ESEA. This includes waiving the requirement that the Academic Achievement indicator be adjusted to account for a participation rate below 95%. This allows for a lower threshold for states to meet on the rate of students required to take assessments, taking into account the reality that there will be more students this year who won’t be able to take the test and that there are a number of students whom schools have not been able to contact. The accountability waiver is a significant adjustment being offered by ED to address the needs and conditions states and schools are operating in under the pandemic.  

Resuming statewide assessments will help to ensure states continue to implement federal equity guardrails established under ESSA while allowing time-limited flexibility, where necessary, for states to adapt accountability systems due to COVID-19. Before federal law demanded that all students be counted and included in statewide summative assessments, opportunity gaps for marginalized students such as ELs and students with disabilities were generally swept under the rug. ESSA includes clear requirements that statewide accountability systems must count all students, must base school ratings on the progress of all groups of students, and must make significant investments in education when any group of students is consistently underperforming. One of the ways to meet this federal requirement is that states must set goals for improving student performance on state assessments for all students including ELs.  

While recognizing that the unique circumstances of an unprecedented pandemic necessitate a more flexible approach this school year in how assessments are used to identify and hold accountable underperforming schools, in the long term, as we start to shift from response to recovery, we cannot lose sight of the underlying spirit and purpose of accountability systems: they should be used as a powerful tool for communicating expectations and spurring action to improve opportunity and achievement for all students and ensuring the most vulnerable students and schools receive the support and resources they need to succeed. Therefore, UnidosUS is aligned with ED’s guidance in considering accountability waivers for the 2020-2021 school year, with the understanding that this is a one-time allowance. Let’s not forget that ESSA sought to address concerns regarding the overreliance on assessments for accountability purposes by requiring multiple measures of performance outside of academic assessments, including an additional indicator of school quality and student success in an effort to eliminate the high-stakes nature placed on standardized tests. To put it more bluntly, the federal government does not require states to use these assessment results for grade promotion, graduation, or for any purpose that could hurt students. 

Other Flexibilities Granted  

In addition to providing for accountability waivers, ED guidance also outlines other flexibilities states can adopt: 

  • Administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments.  
  • Offering remote administration, where feasible.  
  • Extending the testing window into the summer or even fall.  

Having the flexibility to administer a shorter test should help reduce the time educators and students spend preparing for and taking the tests, while still providing useful data on academic progress. Offering remote administration and extending the testing windows will also help schools meet students where they’re at and expand opportunities for students to be able to take the tests, as the Biden administration works to scale the safe reopening of schools. The federal government’s first school survey during the pandemic finds that about half of grade schools are open for full-time, in-person classes. However, there’s a stark gap by race. As of January, half of all White students were attending school full-time in person, when compared with about a third of Latino students, 28% of Black students and 15% of Asian students. UnidosUS encourages states to consider these additional flexibilities in ensuring equitable participation of Latino students in assessments as the data will serve to better target resources to students who need the most support.   

English Language Proficiency Assessments 

The federal guidance on assessments also addressed English language proficiency (ELP) assessments that are often given earlier in the school yearas early as January in some states and that are underway in most states. ED encourages states to “extend the testing window for their ELP assessment, including beyond the end of the 2020-21 school year, if necessary, to ensure that districts are administering this assessment when it safe for them to do so.”  

 Given that most states use either the WIDA ACCESS test or English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century (ELPA21), and neither test provides for remote delivery, concerns were raised that some states were submitting EL students to in-person testing when schools had not yet reopened to the full student body. In its guidance, ED makes clear that “Certainly, we do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test. California, which administers the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC) moved last fall from a paper-pencil test to an online computer-based test that can be administered remotely, and Arizona has extended its ELP testing window to May 21. Both states have large populations of ELs who are Latino, and these actions help address student safety while also providing ELs with the ability to take assessments that are used to inform instruction and placement of ELs, in addition to decisions on exiting students from EL status. 

 A Decision Centered on Equity 

Despite continued efforts pressuring ED to change course and allow for blanket waivers, Secretary Cardona has reiterated the ED will move forward with its guidance on assessments, emphasizing the critical need for data to address inequities and reminding states the flexibilities afforded them in how and when to administer the tests 

UnidosUS stands with Secretary Cardona and ED in their position to resume statewide assessments this year. The decision ultimately centers on the principles of equity and transparency, ensuring that we shed more light on how and why disparities among students have widened during the pandemic so that we can detect and eliminate these barriers once and for all.   

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