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Analysis Highlights State Assessment Strategies for Gauging Student Outcomes and Opportunities in Challenging Year

In maintaining its assessment requirements for the 2020-21 school year, the U.S. Department of Education signaled how important student learning data would be to informing pandemic recovery and school reopening efforts. But it also recognized the operational challenges of administering such tests by granting states flexibility. A new NASBE Policy Update explores the strategies states employed to administer assessments in the 2020-21 school year. It also highlights the opportunities for state boards to learn from and make the best use of data collected from the pandemic school year.

Many states extended their testing window. New Jersey, for example, delayed standardized testing for most of its students until fall, allowing for more in-person instruction before students take the test. Other states, like California and New York, administered shortened assessments to minimize time spent on testing and maximize time spent on instruction.

The department waived federal assessment provisions in a few cases. Colorado’s waiver allowed the state to test students in grades 3, 5, and 7 in literacy and administer math assessments to grades 4, 6, and 8. Oregon’s waiver was predicated on the timeline for students to returning to in-person learning. Similarly, in the District of Columbia, the high percentage of students learning remotely, coupled with limited in-person instruction, meant few students could be assessed in person, which created additional challenges in subgroup data reporting.

Several states waived their own rules on state-required assessments as well, affecting grade promotion and graduation. Mississippi kept its reading and language arts assessment requirement in grade 3 but suspended its policy on a passing score for promotion to grade 4. Massachusetts waived the assessment requirement for the Class of 2022 since the pandemic-related testing cancellations meant these students would not have at least three chances to pass 10th grade reading and math assessments before graduation.

The analysis argues for state leaders to be deliberate in communicating about assessment results with the public, emphasizing the utility of such data in supporting school reopening and recovery. Likewise, states must examine testing data with key questions of equity and access in mind: What do the data say about students’ opportunities to learn in 2020-21? Which students were not assessed? Are the data valid, and for what purposes?

With the influx of federal education funding, states have an opportunity to “ponder whether assessments and data collections in place prepandemic are measuring what matters most,” writes Abigail Potts, NASBE’s director of strategic initiatives. “With partnerships between practitioners, experts, and policymakers, state boards can transform not just assessments’ technical designs, but the supports required to meet the needs of all students.”

Read “State Strategies on Assessments in 2021.”

NASBE serves as the only membership organization for state boards of education. A nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, NASBE elevates state board members’ voices in national and state policymaking, facilitates the exchange of informed ideas, and supports members in advancing equity and excellence in public education for students of all races, genders, and circumstances. Learn more at

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