On the absurdity of mandating ‘diagnostic tests’ at the end of a COVID-19 interrupted school year

We received an email from our principal on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, saying that teachers are expected to give “year-end diagnostic tests in lieu of exams” to start in less than 14 school days. No expectation for any tests or exams during our two months of emergency distance learning had been communicated prior to this moment.

The email included a six-day schedule of which period’s test would occur on which date, spanning the final six days of the school year. Additionally, a few sentences indicated that teachers should continue to comply with 504 / IEP / ELL testing accommodations as legally required. While students would be given a score of 0 or 1 for completing the “diagnostic test,” teachers would score the test and report those scores to help with summer and fall planning.

A “diagnostic test” at the end of a COVID-19 interrupted school year is an absurd demand to put on teachers and students, for several reasons.

  • It is definitionally paradoxical. A “diagnostic test” literally means “test test.” A diagnostic is typically given at the start of a unit or course as a formative assessment, to see what a student already knows and to inform instruction. The teacher who created the diagnostic uses the results to tailor the next lessons to the student’s needs. At the end of a unit or course, traditionally, a student takes a test or exam, which is summative assessment, typically used as a tool to capture what the student knows in some stagnant, quantitative measurement. (I don’t condone giving traditional tests in math class in general, but that’s for a later blog post.) It does not make sense to give a test at the end of the school year, which is effectively summative because teachers will not have these students again, and call it a “diagnostic test.” Next year’s teachers will not know what was on these tests, nor will they probably have access to these test scores, so they will not be using these tests nor test scores to “inform instruction,” so these tests that we are being asked to write and administer are not formative. At best, they are summative, and we should not be giving summative assessments at the end of this school year.
  • It is inequitable. Giving a summative assessment disguised as a “diagnostic test” is antithetical to the equity-based practices our district advertises. Namely, a summative assessment cannot fairly quantify (and should not attempt to quantify) “where students are at” in terms of content knowledge in the middle of a pandemic.
    • Here are two students I teach in this district: Student A lives with both biological parents, who are both professors at local universities. The family has a stable income, meaning that consistent access to internet, food, shelter, and healthcare are not a concern during this pandemic. Since schools closed, Student A, has been completing all of their work for my class with little guidance from me. Student B lives with a single parent who still goes in to work every day because they are an essential employee of one of those universities. Two weeks after school closed, that parent gets infected with COVID-19 and loses hours at their workplace, putting the stability that that parent brought to the student’s home at risk. Student B has to take care of their sick parent and consider finding work during this pandemic and putting the entire household at more risk of getting infected. Student B has been doing their best to keep up with schoolwork, but the impersonal online platform has made it difficult for them to keep up with new concepts. They are not able to get help during Office Hours because any free time is spent taking care of their parent and younger siblings.
    • Both Student A and Student B are in my Period 3 math class. I cannot ethically administer a summative assessment disguised as a “diagnostic test” amidst this pandemic to help decide which of Student A and Student B should be placed in summer school, or have their honors course designation change in the fall. Both students are living in conditions that are at no fault of their own, yet one will be poised to perform better on this assessment than the other. There is no “diagnostic test” that I can write that will accurate capture in a single score the tremendously different life experiences both students are having and learning from during this pandemic.
  • It is impractical. Creating an assessment in a distance learning platform is not a small task, especially in a subject like math, where all previous tests prior to the end of school have been hand-written. Additionally, most of my colleagues have not been administering tests since we’ve left, so students are not used to taking tests online. The curating of topics to cover on this diagnostic, the curating of test items, the adaptation of test items for a virtual platform, the decision of which virtual testing method to implement the test items, the teaching of the students to be able to take the virtual test in the virtual platform that we choose, the making accommodations and reference sheets for students on IEPs / 504s and who are ELLs, and the ability to prepare review materials for students and inform them cannot possibly done in in the 14 days that the administration has allotted us with any quality. A poorly written test benefits no one.

But how will we plan for the summer, know what to teach in the fall, or allocate resources to students to remediate missed content?

  • Remember, that we need to care about our students as humans first. This means we need to worry about their physical and mental survival during this pandemic, first.
  • Remember, also, that “on grade level” is a completely arbitrary designation, which means it can be as easily moved as it was determined by some wave of a hand.
  • There are other ways to get this data without over-testing students.

More on this later.

Published by Xi Yu

Twitter: @xyu119

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