By Arthur VanderVeen, Chief Executive Officer of New Meridian

You could hear the collective gasp from American educators when the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) recently released post-pandemic testing results. While we have all experienced first-hand the disruption wrought by COVID-19, seeing students’ learning loss quantified in the form of declining scores was nothing short of alarming. 

As former Florida Governor Jeb Bush told Education Week, “This is not just nerdy education policy stuff. This is really about the future of young people. The world we’re moving towards is one that requires significantly higher skills to be successful, to live lives of purpose and meaning.” 

NCES, which releases the National Assessment of Educational Progress, more commonly called NAEP or “the nation’s report card,” released data showing scores reached historic lows. The average math score fell five points for fourth graders and eight points for eighth graders compared to 2019 scores. In reading, average scores fell three points in both grades, returning to levels last seen in 1992.  

The results followed a release earlier in October that measured long-term performance among 9-year-olds. That report found that performance in math fell for the first time ever since the 1970s. In reading, scores saw the biggest drop in 30 years. And the declines did not fall equally across America’s student body: Black students saw a 13-point decline in math while white students only declined by 5 points, widening a preexisting achievement gap. According to the Center for Education Policy at Harvard University, the declines erased 40 percent of learning gains achieved over the last two decades.

Yet, as in all crises, what matters most is not what has happened but how we respond. The NAEP results are a call to action—and we must respond with urgency. Our school system must adapt to help students recover the learning lost to the pandemic—and assessment can be a major driver in this effort.
The Need for Next-Gen Assessment

High-quality state assessments have been an essential lever driving the gains students have been demonstrating since 1990, including the slow but real narrowing of achievement gaps across student groups. When administrators, families, and communities can see clearly whether local schools are serving their students equitably, schools respond, by focusing needed resources and additional support where needed.  

Annual statewide testing will not, however, be sufficient to help this generation of students recover from such historic learning loss. Next-generation assessments must reduce overall testing time to allow more time to learn; must do a better job reinforcing good instruction in the classroom, not distracting from it; and must do this while not compromising on our commitments to equity.   

Several assessment organizations are working on this challenge. The Center for Assessment is providing technical assistance to states that are researching how to balance assessment for learning with reliable assessment of learning.  

New Meridian is currently developing the Instructionally Aligned Assessment System, an innovative approach to statewide testing designed to give teachers and students actionable feedback on what has just been taught rather than waiting till the end of the year. The first pilots are taking place in Louisiana and Montana now, using community feedback as a core design principle.  

The system of “testlets” directly aligns assessment with both classroom instruction and state standards, providing educators feedback in real-time throughout the year. The testlet scores will be aggregated to provide reliable, comparable summative scores. This is a key equity guardrail we must maintain because without reliable data to compare student outcomes across schools and student groups, we are navigating this critical recovery in the dark.  

The result is a single system that provides data at all levels: Students benefit because they are tested only on what they’ve been taught. Educators and families gain meaningful and timely feedback throughout the year, allowing them to adjust classroom instruction to the pace of student learning. Administrators receive the data they need to direct resources and ongoing support. Finally, developing a reliable overall score from multiple classroom assessments throughout the year eliminates the need for the end-of-year assessment, dramatically reducing overall testing time. 

The pandemic disrupted so many aspects of our lives but especially our children’s education, and the NAEP results got our attention. We can and must figure out how to accelerate student learning to achieve a swift, broad, and equitable recovery. For our part at New Meridian, we are investing deeply in developing innovative new assessments that support this urgent priority, assessments that connect to the real work being done by teachers and students every day and that deliver more than just a snapshot and a number. We believe this next generation of assessments will help drive the recovery so that this resilient generation of students has every opportunity to achieve its fullest potential.  

Arthur VanderVeen
Chief Executive Officer
Dr. VanderVeen’s 20+ years of in-depth experience in education assessment and technology ranges from Compass Learning and the New York City Department of Education to the College Board.