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As Ohioans start to dream about spring and a time when pandemic restrictions could begin to loosen, one aspect of Spring 2021 is still up in the air because of the coronavirus: standardized testing in the state’s K-12 schools.

Here’s a solution: Schools should go forward with testing, but without the penalties that normally would befall schools, districts, teachers and students for poor performance.

Although some are arguing that the difficulties of interrupted and remote learning mean that students shouldn’t have to take standardized tests this year, those challenges make assessment more important than ever.

Last spring, after in-school learning was halted suddenly, with almost no notice, lawmakers waived the standardized testing requirements for the 2019-20 school year and that made sense, given the chaos of what would normally have been testing season.

For the current school year, the General Assembly already has passed a measure canceling most penalties that could come with poor testing performance by teachers, schools, or districts. That remains appropriate. Even though nearly a year has passed since COVID-19 began interrupting all aspects of community life, the constantly changing circumstances and massive stress on families mean that remote and/or hybrid learning continues to interfere with learning, especially for poor and minority students.

But going forward with the tests themselves is important; schools and education officials need to know how remote learning and upheaval have affected student achievement. They need to know how the effects differ for different groups of kids — those of high vs. low incomes, for minorities, for older grades vs. younger and for rural vs. urban students.

That data is needed not only to help get this generation of pandemic-affected kids back on track, but also to better understand how to go about remote learning in the future.

We’ve already lost one year of testing. To leave this unique past year unmeasured would squander valuable insight, whether it is to improve remote learning in ordinary circumstances or, heaven forbid, if another emergency shutdown arises.

A side benefit of testing without consequences this year might be for the public and policymakers to see the value of assessment as purely diagnostic tool rather than the high-stakes game it became over the past three decades. Today’s young parents don’t remember a time when multiple standardized tests nearly every year weren’t a standard feature of school. It wasn’t always so, though. Before the 1980s, states left it up to local school districts to assess the performance of their students, which they did largely through course grades. Success or failure belonged to the individual student; no one thought much in terms of whether the schools or the teachers had been effective.

Then a 1983 report by a national commission on education, titled “A Nation at Risk,” raised alarms about steady decline in the performance and abilities of American students through the 1960s and 1970s. It declared the matter a national emergency. In many states, including Ohio, the response centered on the idea that schools were failing, with no consequences; “accountability” became a rallying cry. ...

The response now, as pandemic-related remote learning adds yet another wrinkle, shouldn’t be to give up on measuring. We should instead recognize that its best use is to diagnose how children are faring and which types of lessons and methods work best with which students.

Figuring out how public schools can overcome the effects of poverty and family dysfunction that plague so many American children must be a never-ending project. Measuring results via testing is an indispensable tool.

The Columbus Dispatch published this editorial on Jan. 30:

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