One Way Districts Can Prioritize Students: Don’t Do Test Prep

The case for a different way to respond to standardized tests

It’s the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools continue to attend to students’ urgent social, emotional, and academic needs as best they can while the promise of vaccines and the downward trend in cases bring hope.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration recently announced that states must resume students’ annual testing this school year.

States are responsible for finding flexibility in navigating assessments. Additionally, states, districts, and schools retain autonomy and agency at this moment, same as before COVID-19. Many have innovated and pivoted to meet the moment. They can continue to:

  • Attend to the social-emotional needs of their students and educators.
  • Emphasize the use of high-quality instructional materials that affirm students’ races, home languages, and cultures.
  • Prioritize ongoing and relevant professional development and coaching for teachers.
  • Engage families and the community as authentic partners in students’ learning.
  • Use formative and diagnostic assessments for critical data to inform instruction.
  • Apply their understanding of how different assessment types serve distinct purposes as part of a cohesive strategy.

NTC recommends all system and district leaders exercise self-determination to respond to students’ and educators’ needs.

The year has been nonstop challenges and problem-solving. But in crisis, new ideas were born. We’ve seen fresh ways of doing things, from SEL integration in classrooms to how to use instructional time. NTC recommends district and system leaders exercise autonomy and try something different this year. We advise not doing advance test prep for assessments. Instead, have students simply take the test and since there is flexibility, preferably a short one.

When we say test prep, we mean using a lot of instructional time to “teach to the test.” This includes taking practice tests, studying test-taking strategies, and focusing on test-specific content. Test prep isn’t when educators undergo professional development for assessment literacy. It’s not using assessment data to design lessons. And, test prep is not using summative or formative data (and other non-academic information) to examine student outcomes trends.

Even in non-pandemic years, teaching to the test at the exclusion of attending to other academic, social-emotional, family, and community needs has been problematic. It takes valuable instructional time away from attending to kids’ academic and social-emotional needs rigorously and engagingly. The remaining school year time is precious, whether remote, hybrid or in-person.

Every minute counts.

We believe state assessments can help address inequity. Anything resembling objective measures of student achievement is not easy to come by, and large-scale, field-tested assessments are a good option to achieve this. And being held accountable for students’ academic success elevates the profession. But we need a well-rounded story of a student’s learning journey — a narrative informed by summative, formative, and diagnostic assessment data, as well as attendance, school culture, student agency data, and more.

The pandemic’s disproportionate effect on communities of color and in poverty is well-documented. And our national reckoning with racial injustice continues to expose profoundly painful wounds for many. Mandated standardized tests do not see, hear, or value the harmful impact of these experiences on students. This year’s story must not minimize or exclude a year’s worth of immeasurable social and emotional impacts.

For most of us, this decision to perform state tests is out of our control. But we can decide what we do (and don’t do) in the days leading up to tests to center our students’ and educators’ needs.

Desmond K. Blackburn, Ph.D, is Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of New Teacher Center (NTC). NTC is a national non-profit organization dedicated to disrupting the predictability of educational inequities by supporting all educators, from the classroom to the boardroom. Prior to joining NTC in 2018, he spent twenty-two years as a math teacher, assistant principal, principal, director of school improvement, area superintendent, chief of school performance & accountability, and superintendent. He can be reached at dblackburn [at]

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