Analysis: This year’s ISATs could be a federally mandated reality check

Chances are, Idaho students will struggle on standardized tests this spring.

That’s never good news.

In non-pandemic times, it would be catastrophic news.

But in 2021, it might be just the news Idaho needs to see.

Teachers will finally get data on some students who haven’t been tested in two years, after the onslaught of coronavirus forced Idaho to cancel its spring 2000 assessments. In the big picture, state leaders will better understand the effects of a global pandemic on Idaho students. Learning loss is pretty much a given, with challenges across the K-12 spectrum. The numbers will help quantify the loss.

“You can’t fix a problem you don’t understand,” State Board of Education member Kurt Liebich said this week.

Of course, the state has no say in administering its Idaho Standards Achievement Test. The federal government requires states to test to their academic standards — a mandate that dates back to the federal Elementary and Secondary Schools Act of 1965.

The Trump administration granted states a timeout last spring, at the start of the pandemic. But in its first major education policy decision, the Biden administration last week said states would have to administer their standardized tests.

So, here we are.

For third- through eighth-graders and 10th-graders, some 165,000 students, it’s ISAT season after all.

The cynical take would be that state leaders are simply trying to put the best face on a federal mandate. But that might be an oversimplification.

For one thing, State Department of Education assessment and accountability director Kevin Whitman and State Board member Linda Clark both give the Biden administration high marks for flexibility.

States can shorten up the test — and this year’s version of the ISAT will be 30 to 40 minutes shorter, Whitman said. States can administer the test remotely. They can move the tests back to summer or fall, although Idaho still expects to close the ISAT test window on May 28, Whitman said.

What does all this mean for Idaho teachers and Idaho students? Perhaps, not much. Ninety percent of K-3 students took the fall Idaho Reading Indicator in person, SDE deputy superintendent Marilyn Whitney said, and she doesn’t expect the ISAT to play out much differently.

Clark agreed. “I think testing will be very much normal, for the bulk of students.”

One big difference, for schools, is that the Biden administration doesn’t want the spring tests used as an accountability measure. And as long as that’s the case, State Board President Debbie Critchfield isn’t opposed to the assessment plan.

“To me, this becomes a starting place for where we go from here,” she said.

A starting place, on a long path back.

Since no one knows exactly what to expect this spring, Critchfield isn’t ruling out a pleasant surprise. Students might do better than anyone expects. But by the same token, she said she won’t be disappointed if the scores are lower than expected.

The ISAT scores could attach some numbers to harsh realities. Clark knows there has been learning loss during the past 12 turbulent months. And as schools had to shuffle students between face-to-face and online instruction, some learning just never happened.

Linda Clark

The test scores, in turn, could help the state better spend its money and help students catch up. That means putting money into teacher training, Clark said. It also means making the most of the next round of federal stimulus dollars, and Idaho’s share of a possible $130 billion earmarked to education. Without data — and this spring’s ISATs are a start — state leaders would only be guessing at the best way to spend stimulus dollars.

“It would be a little bit like putting a blindfold on and swinging at a pinata,” Clark said.

The spring data will leave some questions unanswered. The State Board has hoped the ISAT would provide teachers with useful and crucial data on student growth. But after canceling the ISAT last spring, Clark said, the board can’t tell for sure that the ISAT will provide useful growth data.

This spring’s assessments will provide a snapshot into student proficiency, however. The scores will provide another look at ELA skills in the elementary grades and junior high school math skills, two trouble areas that persisted long before the pandemic. The data also will provide an in-depth dive into the effects of the pandemic.

“It’s likely that there are going to be gaps everywhere,” Liebich said.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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