Eric Stinton: To Test Or Not To Test - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at

In a few weeks, schools will start administering the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA) to students in third through eighth grades, as well as high school juniors. For the uninitiated, these are the standardized tests designed to measure student competency of Common Core standards.

This year, since students are returning on a staggered, blended schedule, students will take the SBAs for two hours per day over the course of two weeks.

Teachers, too, have been dedicating a number of hours to the test, with meetings about protocol and procedure as well as a surprisingly thorough training module to become certified to run an official test.

This is not a complaint – all of it was genuinely useful and necessary – so much as an accurate accounting of how much total time these tests require.

The purpose of standardized tests is to see what students know and what they don’t know under a given set of standards, then to track that progress over time. But after a pandemic year, this data serves another purpose: delineating the learning gap that has almost certainly occurred during distance learning.

It’s hard to compare distance learning and in-person learning. There are no doubt aspects of distance learning that have been silver linings. It provided a mandatory crash-course in technology usage for teachers and students alike, and it demanded more communication, organization and responsibility than pre-pandemic school years did.

It was a unique challenge, and those who met the challenge benefited in ways they wouldn’t have in normal times.

But it’s undeniable that in-person instruction is simply better, in terms of academic learning as well as for collaboration and overall socializing. Add technology and connectivity problems and a delayed start to the school year, and there’s no question the quality and quantity of instructional time has decreased.

This was the bargain from the start: in a pandemic there is an inverse relationship between what’s best for individual learning and what’s best for broader society.

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school student raises her hand in class during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
Hawaii schools will soon start administering the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA) to students in third through eighth grades, as well as high school juniors. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

So my first reaction was to think, why not just skip this round of SBAs? Why not reclaim all those hours for teaching and learning? Even in normal years, there have been legitimate criticisms about the test itself and the validity of the data it yields, though in fairness pretty much every standardized test has its share of legitimate criticism.

The flaws of the tests – from buggy software to limits on how students are able to respond – will likely be magnified this year. And since students have to be under the supervision of a certified test administrator to take them, students will have to return to school for the tests.

This means the students most likely to not take the tests at all are the ones who have likely been impacted the most: the students who, usually for health-related reasons, have continued to do 100% distance learning even when schools began resuming in-person learning.

If we have data missing for specific at-risk demographics, how reliable will that aggregate data be? This is to say nothing of how we actually use that data here in Hawaii, which is a whole other discussion to have.

And if the purpose is to, as Smarter Balanced says, “stay on the path toward college and career readiness,” I would argue that the distance learning lessons of time-management, independent responsibility and practice with digital communication are all much more directly applicable than a lot of content. Though, to be sure, not all content is meant for workplace application.

Besides, it’s not like SBAs are our only source of data. We have a year’s worth of classwork and homework, tests, attendance logs, and observations from teachers and parents, which is often more holistic and meaningful data, anyway.

Universities have been waiving SAT and ACT results on applications, too, so there is precedent for ignoring standardized tests beyond Hawaii skipping the SBAs last year at the onset of the pandemic.

These are all valid reasons to skip the SBAs for a second year in a row, and I probably wouldn’t argue if that decision is ultimately made. Yet, the more I think about it, the less those reasons matter to me. I still want the data.

Important Data Collection

I want to know if there are students who thrived with distance learning, and see if there are any patterns in that group that can help us respond better to the next pandemic.

I want a better understanding of what my students learned and retained this year, and what they didn’t. I have a pretty good idea of that already, but the SBAs will either add solid confirmation or throw some doubt into my own data. Both of those outcomes are useful.

Perhaps most importantly, if and when we find ourselves in another situation where closing schools is a possibility, having a wide swath of data from districts, counties and states across the country will allow us, in theory, to make more informed policy decisions.

Yes, the data will almost surely tell us what we already know, but confirmation is still valuable, and the potential to find confounding data is important.

The data will almost certainly be incomplete, but incomplete is still better than completely missing. There is a good chance that whatever data we do collect will not result in any actual change, but having no data at all guarantees nothing will change.

There are legitimate concerns about the impact this testing period will have on individual students who are already behind and could use the additional hours of instruction. This seems to be an inescapable dilemma; when you’re testing you aren’t really learning, and when you’re learning you aren’t being tested.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue against the collection of data in any year, but especially after a year as different as this one. I can’t think how it will benefit anyone to know less.

Read this next:

Chad Blair: Goodbye COVID-19, Hello Climate Change

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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at

Latest Comments (0)

I watched Gonzaga run all over Creighton this morning in the sweet 16 basetball tourney.  Great game.  But I was wondering how lucky they all must feel that they got to play the game that may propel them to the next level of professional sport.  Probably a very small percentage, but still, one can dream.  Isn't that what we learn in skool?  Dream big?So what is the message we are getting from our state?  Dream just enough to get to the next level, and if we choose to, we'll just change the rules so that equity will be achieved.So what is sadder?  Uniform mediocracy?  Or kids being able to read, rite and rithmetic using Webex and hi.doe?

Ranger_MC · 2 years ago

We increasingly seem to want to stack the deck in all of our metrics.  It goes without saying that each individual has strengths and weaknesses, some of which cannot be measured in standard scoring systems.  Some individuals are born with athletic prowess or artistic gifts, others have aptitudes in other spheres.  We accept the fact that some of us can carry a tune while others cannot (but most of us can learn how to read music). Why are we willing to demand a defined skill set for participation in a professional sports team, but not for educational achievement?  Our society will suffer in the long run if we fail to set reasonable expectations for education and measure progress towards achieving related goals.

be_data_driven · 2 years ago

"But it’s undeniable that in-person instruction is simply better, in terms of academic learning as well as for collaboration and overall socializing. "IMO, that's a very dangerous and disappointing position to take.While it may be true for many, perhaps most, students, you should be open to the possibility that for some students, online instruction has been better for learning, and possibly for collaboration as well as socializing.Consider, for example, kids who were subject to bullying and ostracization, or kids in classes regularly disrupted by unruly students.

Rob · 2 years ago

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