Why Assessments are Absolutely Vital When Schools Reopen 

Prompted In more than two decades of working in education, I have never seen more disruption to our system. Traditional schooling is done for the year in almost every state and tens of millions of students now study at home. The learning gap grows every day.

Teachers and parents are extraordinarily apprehensive about where students stand academically. Early studies show that the impact of lost learning time, compounded with summer learning loss, could be substantial. For example, even in Washington DC, one of the few places nationwide to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), students will be weeks or even months behind and unprepared for their next grade level, according to a study by EmpowerK12.

The study shows that math proficiency rates could decline by 10 percent and English language arts by 16 percent in 2021. Other nationwide studies estimate the gaps to be even larger.

These aren’t simply statistics; these are actual children whose lives could be impacted for years. This fall, as many as 15,600 DC students will be less proficient in reading and an estimated 9,800 students will be less proficient in math than they would have been without school closures. 

In addition, we know this impact on learning will disproportionately affect low-income students and students of color who simply don’t have internet access at home, whose parents are more likely to have lost a job, and, from the data we are seeing, are more likely to lose loved ones to the virus.

“Economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities are likely to experience more learning loss,” the study said. “The impact of disconnection from vital services such as special education supports, behavior health resources and more are likely to be significant and enduring.”

The truth is, we urgently need students to return to school as soon as practicably possible. While some districts have rapidly established quality virtual learning approaches, that is hardly the norm. Seventeen percent of U.S. students do not have computers in the home (AP). Fourteen percent of students lack home internet access, and the percentage is twice that in families with low incomes and less-educated parents (EducationNext). Teachers at some schools across the country report that fewer than half of their students are participating in online learning (The New York Times). In Los Angeles, about a third of high school students were not logging in for classes (The New York Times). Online learning, as our schools and teachers are equipped to deliver it today, is a stopgap at best, and one that is exacerbating inequities among our students along racial and class lines.

Transitioning back to physical schooling, educators will have to address disparate loss in learning time without the benefit of data from this spring’s state test. Each year as they prepare to reopen schools, district and school administrators make critical decisions to ensure supports are in place for each student who needs them. This is reflected in the master schedule, in teacher assignments, in the design of Individualized Education Programs, and other support services. Administrators draw on multiple sources of information to inform these decisions, including grades, attendance patterns, counselor recommendations, IEPs, demonstrated behavior, etc. And, when available, they use the data from the prior year’s statewide assessment to inform these decisions.

This year, when uncertainty about the loss in student learning time and readiness for the new year is heightened to unprecedented levels, schools won’t have that data, and administrators will largely be flying blind. Final grades were likely carried over from the winter marking period. Attendance data will largely be meaningless. Class assignments, commitment of support services, and curriculum choices that are the real tools available to school administrators will certainly not be targeted as efficiently as needed to address the growing disparities emerging from this crisis.

The Argument for a Beginning-of-Year Assessment

States and districts are wrestling with how best to assess students’ proficiency when school reopens, balancing the need for data with the urgent priority to focus on instruction. As Brian Gong from the Center for Assessment, such an assessment has a specific purpose that requires a specific design: It should be a short (i.e., < 60-minute) direct assessment of the critical learning standards from the prior year’s curriculum that measures what students mastered or may have missed. It will help administrators determine the degree of differential learning loss and assign resources accordingly. It will also help teachers prepare differentiated unit plans based on whether students are likely ready for the coming year’s instruction or will need additional supports to keep them on pace.

Ideally, as Thom Kane recently noted, this assessment uses questions from the state test, repurposed to focus on the critical prerequisite skills that will have the biggest impact on students’ readiness for the next year’s instruction. Using questions from the state test will better ensure alignment to how the state assesses its learning standards each year and build on teachers’ and students’ familiarity with that assessment.

Finally, there is real value in states administering this beginning-of-year assessment statewide in order to identify where the impact of COVID-19 has been most acute and direct resources accordingly. Comparable, statewide data, combined with other data on access to computers and the internet and the quality and scope of online learning delivery, would enable the state to evaluate what factors and practices were most effective in helping reduce the impact to student learning while students were out of school. This would be valuable to know as schools transition to what will likely be hybrid learning models in the fall, combining in-person and online learning.

In this challenging time, it is easy to believe that the only certainty is uncertainty, that the system that welcomes students back will be forever altered, leaving us in a “new normal.” That is almost certainly true. The first day of school this year will look very different than it did last year.

But good data can ease the transition back to the classroom, both for educators and students. The simple fact is that states, districts, schools and teachers will need to know where students stand when they return, and they should not have to wait for weeks of evaluation. It is our obligation to give them solid information as quickly as we can. The planning for that starts now.

COVID-19 Education Resources

Pandemic-related resources for states, districts, schools and educators

U.S. Department of Education COVID Page

Council of Chief State School Officers COVID Page

Center for Assessment’s CenterLine Blog

ESSA Update Twitter Page