A system that entitles institutions to collect tax funds for the purpose of educating students should be held accountable for student progress towards common academic standards. That should also apply to Flex Learning, though the means of testing should look different. The expectation for accountability is entirely reasonable, given the program’s tax-funded status. Some of the greatest support for test-based accountability comes from civil rights advocates who want to expose and reverse the subpar quality of education and academic achievement gaps that face lower-income and minority students.
Federal money comprises about 9% of all K-12 tax revenues in Michigan. In order to receive these funds from D.C., states must test all third- through eighth-grade students in math and reading each year and once in science. Michigan administers these tests, as well as a social studies test, as part of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP. To fulfill the federal requirement for high school assessments, the state’s 11th graders take the SAT to measure college readiness in both math and writing, and the M-STEP for science and social studies.
Due to the timing of the pandemic’s onset, the U.S. Department of Education granted waivers so states didn’t have to administer their annual standardized achievement tests, typically taken in the springtime. An August 2020 deal approved by the Michigan Legislature required districts to conduct benchmark tests for returning students in order to measure the effects on learning from the governor’s decision to close school buildings.
With the moment of emergency having passed, a subsequent waiver could provide a testing alternative to the standardized regimen for Flex Learning students in the upper grades. In her September 2020 letter denying a second consecutive automatic testing waiver, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos nonetheless proposed this disruptive moment as an opportunity for testing innovation: “Now may be the perfect time for you to rethink assessment in your state, including considering competency and mastery-based assessments, to better gauge the learning and academic growth of your students.”
A more flexible system calls for an exceptional kind of testing that would require a new U.S. Department of Education waiver in order to preserve federal funding. The proposed alternative assessment system could provide both needed public accountability and meaningful proof of student mastery. Adopting specific end-of-course exams could work for a core subject like mathematics. The sequential learning of math skills and concepts calls for a carefully tailored and standardized assessment at the course level.
But this approach may not be well suited for most Flex Learning courses. More broadly, each course should include some type of baseline and summative assessments that together provide a measuring stick of the knowledge and skills learners acquire. Mandated reporting of cumulative data at the course and provider level, in addition to an online user rating system, would provide meaningful information on the relative value of different offerings. The tests themselves would more often be aligned to an individual student’s academic position and trajectory.
While protecting individual student privacy, additional data should link the completion of a specific prerequisite with performance in subsequent courses, attainment of a high school diploma or specific industry credentials, as well as to initial career placements and the need for remedial college courses. State analysts should translate this information into reportable metrics that students and their counselors could see as they review EDPs and consider their next educational steps.
Policymakers and other citizens also should be able to observe the aggregated data in a user-friendly online interface. Districts and other education providers could use this robust data to help determine merit-based bonuses or salary increases for instructors whose courses best promote student success. In all, the Flex Learning approach to testing would promote accountability at the ground level through a more relevant experience and transparent data that informs user decisions and broadly highlights paths to success.