Should We Alter the Reading Benchmarks Because of the Pandemic?

  • assessment
  • 07 November, 2020

Teacher questions:

Over the past few weeks, I'e fielded many questions about testing – from policymakers and teachers. Here are a couple of examples: 

1.     Should schools lower grade level benchmark reading expectations due to lost instructional time during the pandemic? Please advise ASAP.

2.     A question that keeps coming up is, if a student cannot read grade level text on their own, can they then listen to the text and answer the questions on an assessment in order to be considered "meeting" reading standards 1-9 in grades 2-5 since there is a specified Lexile band for those grades through standard 10?

Shanahan response:

Over my career I’ve worked on many tests (e.g., PARRC, ACT, NAEP, SAT, and various state tests and commercial tests, too). I have also done research on classroom testing, including informal reading inventories and cloze tests. Despite that, I think we overdo it with testing. I’m not just mouthing the usual complaints about intrusive accountability tests, but I think we do more classroom assessment than necessary as well.  

Nell Duke and I were on a podcast for the National Association of School Boards recently and a question about state tests came up. Both Nell and I were unified in our opinion that given the terrible disruptions to education this year, annual accountability testing should be suspended this time around. 

There are several reasons for not bothering with that kind of testing right now. The most persuasive is that instructional time is at a premium. Too much instruction is being lost. Devoting any instructional time to accountability assessment at this time would be profligate.  

We should forego next spring’s accountability tests. But we also should be prepared for an early round of testing at the beginning of the next in-person school year (Fall, 2021?) to provide schools with worthwhile information early on. Summative data this spring won't help, but formative data early the next school year would.

But it isn't just policy makers who are concerned about evaluation. Teachers and principals seem to be at sixes and sevens over classroom testing. How do we test over Zoom? Should we test at all? How do we interpret the tests? Should we lower our standards?

To tell the truth, though I’ve tested hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of students, I’ve never done so from outside a classroom. I think, with sufficiently high quality equipment, I could test students’ oral reading at distance – and, yet, teachers I respect are divided over the matter. Those who've tried tell me they don't trust the results, while others are more confident. These tests have not been validated under current circumstances. We should be able to figure out that one -- how to evaluate performance at a distance - but we may take longer than the Pennsylvania primary.

I’m less sanguine about other kinds of at a distance testing, since kids can figure out work arounds to avoid having to know what the tests are evaluating.

Of greater concern, is that many schools have lost sight of the purposes of these classroom tests... either to offer predictions about students' ultimate success (so we know whom to give extra resources to) or to provide benchmarks that show where students are right now so we'll know what should come next. The introductory questions above, I suspect, are driven by concerns over fairness. In other words, the teachers are treating these screening and monitoring tests as if they were high stakes assessments like the ACT or SAT.

Imagine if physicians decided that their diagnostic tests had to be interpreted according to such notions of fairness. "Mrs. Jones the results of your mammogram would usually be concerning. But since we are in a pandemic, I'm not going to recommend a biopsy;the disease might not have been this advanced without all the stresses that you have been under. I think it would be fairest if we treated this as a less advanced tumor and just not worry about it right now."

We have a word for such notions of "fairness" -- malpractice.

Schools often evaluate students' early reading performance using DIBELS-style measures. The benchmarks of such tests are intended to be diagnostic... "Oh, Johnny still is having trouble with phonemic awareness, I'd better continue PA instruction for him, but the rest of the class can move on" or "The test indicates that Janie is struggling with decoding, especially with the vowels... I'll teach those next." Adjusting those benchmarks may make everyone feel good: "Johnny and Janie might not be doing as well as in the past, but doggone it, it's not their fault that we haven't had as much teaching as in the past." 

Those kinds of benchmark adjustments can only disguise the fact that Johnny and Janie need additional tuition with particular reading skills. The kids and teachers might --for now-- feel great about the results of tests with lower benchmarks. Unfortunately, that good feeling will be temporary, a sugar-high if you will. The test is telling you there is a problem. Accepting a lower score as being sufficient, just will hide the problem and keep it from being addressed.

Those reading text level goals were not established with the idea that they'd be easy for everyone to reach in a certain time period. No, they were aimed at lsetting a long term continuum that, if students advanced along successfully, would result in adequate proficiency. Adequate here means that students could enlist in the military, enroll in higher education, or get a job -- and thrive.  

I doubt very much that colleges, employers, or the military intend to lower their standards down the road because of today's pandemic. Accordingly, we must do everything possible to get students to the levels of achievement that will allow them full access to our society's economic, civic, and social benefits.

The idea of concluding that students can read well enough if they have strong listening skills is more of the same and merits the same response. The reading comprehension standards require that the student be able to the read texts independently. Our job is to teach them how to make sense of text at those levels of difficulty indicated in the standards.

I have no problem with reading accommodations for learning disabled or non-English speaking students. If I want to find out what they know about science, their inability to read English could lead me to incorrect conclusions. But, if the point is to teach students to read, then teaching them to listen instead is a rip off.  

This pandemic is an educational disaster for many of our boys and girls. Lowering our standards and our efforts to accomplish them will not make it better for the kids; it will just reduce the likelihood that we'll do what is necessary for their success. Please don't lower those benchmarks.


See what others have to say about this topic.

TC Nov 07, 2020 12:49 PM

Thank you for this post! It is much needed clarification and wisdom at this time. The educators I coach at the middle level are working so hard to teach and support kids who are in-person and online while maintaining high standards and high quality instruction. This is not easy, but we have resolved to continue the push while balancing support during this pandemic. It is not easy, but to your point, one day this will be over and our students will go on to high school and careers and we want to be able to say that we did the best we could to prepare them for it.

Stacey Bushinski Nov 07, 2020 05:14 PM

I agree with what you are saying. Do you have strategies for implementation? We are f2f- need to maintain 6' distance and everyone is in masks and we do not share any materials- all books/equipment are quarantined for a minimum of 72 hours. We have no consistent technology available (it's backordered). With the air vents blowing all day (they can't be turned off for health/safety reasons) it's nearly impossible to hear the younger students, a 4th grade teacher said the 4th-5th grade students are getting better at projecting their voices, so it's easier to do oral reading assessments with the older kids. We use F&P BAS. Our iReady testing will be occuring- but it's a lot later in the year than usual. We can use the RAZ Kids placement test when we have the technology in place to do iReady. If our district's goal is to have 3 reading levels on each student, how can we safely make that happen (community numbers are increasing and one of our schools is closed for 2 weeks due to a spike in cases)?

Heather Nov 07, 2020 05:28 PM

Thanks for these comments! My only concern is your suggestion to skip spring testing, though I noticed that you specified "accountability testing" which suggests to me that the accountability component is the objectionable piece (I agree). "Nell Duke and I were on a podcast for the National Association of School Boards recently and a question about state tests came up. Both Nell and I were unified in our opinion that given the terrible disruptions to education this year, annual accountability testing should be suspended this time around." I believe that spring testing is an important place to gain an understanding of how the pandemic and all of the disruptions have affected student learning. We should use the spring testing opportunity to measure student learning. This is valuable information we need to capture. Let's drop the accountability component and any extension to teacher evaluations, etc. and use the test results ONLY to evaluate student learning. I really think that waiting until fall to evaluate where students are in their learning wastes precious months and would be educational negligence. We should identify and address gaps where and how we can from spring through fall and beyond.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 07, 2020 06:10 PM


I don't buy the argument that it would be worth doing more damage now to see how much damage has been done. Let's inventory the damage at the end -- not the middle -- of the pandemic, and use instructional time to minimize it. There will be sufficient time available to evaluate the damage once we are back in schools full time.



Timothy Shanahan Nov 07, 2020 06:12 PM

Stacey- No, I'm not arguing against accountability testing but against unnecessary testing. It sounds to me like you are trying to collect a lot more data than you need to guide instruction. Why do you need three reading levels for each child? I would suggest that your team figure out what it needs to know to proceed effectively and to limit your assessment to that.

good luck.


Judy Ayers Nov 07, 2020 06:13 PM

Thank you, Dr. Shanahan! I’ve completed DIBELS, STAR and Benchmark assessments on K, 1st and 2nd. It’s tricky but doable! Scores at this level are lower than 3rd, 4th grades. Instruction can be targeted to deficiencies!!

Gretchen Nov 07, 2020 09:04 PM

Thanks so much for this. As usual, you are spot on! I’ve seen so many articles calling for expectations to be altered, and in my head, I’m screaming. To lower our benchmarks now is to hurt our students for years to come. I have a hard time understanding the lower benchmark argument. I would be irate if my children’s teachers lowered benchmarks and expectations for my children. I just can’t do that for my students either.

Travis Hinkley Nov 07, 2020 10:02 PM


I suspect most of the talk around lowering the benchmark for state testing has to do with how uneven remote learning has been for schools in general. I would like to see the discussion around the benefits of remote learning and how it can bridge the gap of a short school year, and how it could be a great vehicle for grade-level reading. Yes, students need to be in school fulltime, but let's not just go back to the same drawing board. We need more instructional time to bring students up to meet the demands of the 21st century.

Katy Parkinson Nov 08, 2020 10:42 AM

Completely and wholeheartedly agree

Tim Shanahan Nov 08, 2020 01:32 PM

The benefits of remote learning when it comes to teaching reading are unknown. At least with those kids just getting started it is very likely that there will be big losses. The benefits seem to be that it is better than nothing. How much better is unknown.


Teresa McCarthy Nov 09, 2020 02:01 PM

My initial thoughts in this are we are not breaking children. So much is different and my hope is data is being collected (somehow) to know how to proceed. Until then, there are best practices that Ts are already doing that support emergent readers despite testing. I see it as a giant year of research and we may come out knowing far more.

Nazila Nov 10, 2020 04:49 AM

I am on the PD committee at my High School. Over the summer, I suggested that we do an assessment of learning (in Sept) to see what may have been lost from March to June but it went on deaf ears. Teachers are asking for a different grading policy for multilingual learners instead of how can I scaffold to meet the needs of my students. Teachers have little or no guidance or assistance when it comes to struggling students who are not submitting assignments or attending synchronous instruction.
I love the mammogram analogy; when put this way, it is evident that we should not lower standards. While we are taking many things under consideration when it comes to students emotional well-being, we are still clueless how to support students who are living with four siblings and sharing two devices or who have no/low internet access. Although there are many things to consider when issuing grades to students, I still believe that lowering the standards only make our students less capable of handling global challenges.

Jasmine Giddings Nov 18, 2020 06:22 PM

My school district is currently mandating benchmark assessments in reading, math, and science. I agree Timothy that instruction time is premium. Last week, I lost 3 days of instruction due to benchmark testing. So much time is put into dealing with tech issues such as logging in and error messages. By the time my students are finally able to log in, there are mentally drained and don't put forth their best effort into completing the assessment. There are also so many factors at home I believe affect student performance. Students with multiple siblings have to work in a setting that isn't the most conducive for testing. They're dealing with loud amounts of noise and some are even managing taking care of siblings are relatives. I don't think it's fair for us to assess students to this degree given the circumstances. I'm not completely against gathering data to see how students are progressing, but I don't think teachers should be held accountable for benchmark testing during distance learning. Thank you for this post and sharing your thoughts!

Larry Chan Nov 19, 2020 10:49 PM

I agree with not lowering the standards of the benchmarks. I do not think spring testing should be skipped. I feel that it should still be given so that schools can figure out throughout the summer how to come up with a plan that will benefit the students the upcoming fall semester. Plus, the spring testing may be a door to see how the pandemic has changed the way students learn and grasp information. Thank you for this post!

Angela Caruso Nov 20, 2020 06:55 PM

I think they should alter the grading this year with all that is going on. My kids are struggling with online issues and stress of being online all day is very stressful and the way we are teaching isn’t really engaging to many children and the technical issues that arise loosing pieces here and there is also a problem.

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Should We Alter the Reading Benchmarks Because of the Pandemic?


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