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How to Ensure Students Succeed in a Year Like No Other

Prominent voices in American education argue for the critical need of reliable data to guide decisions about equity, access, and learning in the age of covid-19.

As students return to class this fall—either in person or online—the case for detailed performance data has never been stronger. Prominent voices in American education are calling for smarter assessments to guide students, parents, and teachers through a challenging school year.

On July 20, Jeb Bush, John B. King, Jr., and Carissa Moffat Miller joined in a discussion hosted by Bellwether Education Partners on equity, school accountability, and how to provide teachers with useful insight on student learning.

After schools shut their doors in the spring because of the covid-19 pandemic, students had wildly different learning experiences. Some accessed high-quality remote classes while others never logged on at all. Some had parents take over homeschooling while others were left to study on their own. Some districts were all in on remote learning while others gave up entirely and ended the school year early.

“We really have no idea what kids got last spring,” said John King, who served as secretary of education during the Obama administration and now leads The Education Trust. “You have a lot of places that didn’t even take attendance.” That makes it virtually impossible for teachers to simply start with a normal curriculum in the fall semester.

an image promoting the bellwether webinar, featuring photos, from left to right, of jeb bush, john b king jr, carissa moffat miller, and andy rotherham

Bush, the former Florida governor, said policymakers need to “protect students from adults who seem to be pretty defeatist” when it comes to the prospects of equitable learning during the pandemic. “If you stop measuring, who are the losers? The losers are those who have been left behind historically,” he said.

Low-income and minority students were already at greater risk of learning loss over the summer, and the disrupted spring semester likely made those trends worse.

“What people are focused on right now is how we get fall back in place, how we get needs met for fall,” said Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “The data tells us where we need to focus and put our resources.”

In that sense, the case for diagnostic testing in schools has parallels with the need for more comprehensive testing for coronavirus to fight the pandemic. If we're going to reopen schools, King argued, "we need an effective system of testing for covid-19, an effective system of contact tracing, and an effective strategy for helping people to quarantine. Our international competitors that have already gotten kids back to school have those things in place."

Honestly identifying problems takes a lot of political will, Bush added. Assessments often reveal deep inequities, and politicians don't usually get rewarded for finding trouble. That's why such findings must be paired with a plan to address uneven performance. “Accountability can’t just be, 'Eat your broccoli!' and that’s the end of it," Bush said. "It’s to point out where your challenges are, and then develop strategies to close those gaps.”

A screenshot from the bellwether webinar, featuring, clockwise from top left to right, carissa moffat miller, john b king jr, andy rotherham, and jeb bush

With ongoing closures looking increasingly certain for the fall, those strategies will have to include distributing laptops, expanding internet access, and making sure remote-learning software works well for all students. “It’s incredibly important for us to provide those resources—especially high-quality instructional materials,” said Moffat Miller.

This year will find schools across the country trying many different approaches to learning—in person, online, or a mix of the two. And that, the panelists said, makes it critical to gather data that allows for comparisons across a range of student populations and learning environments. Shared assessment is vital to determine what kind of interventions are working best. If each school or district takes their own approach to measuring learning, it’s harder to identify gaps and direct funding and materials where they’ll do the most good.

“We need a system of accountability to make sure we pay attention to the equity gaps we face," King said. “And we have to make sure the resources are there, the training is there, the quality curriculum is there.”

At the end of the day, King added, policymakers and district leaders aren’t the only ones who require sound information on student performance. Individual families trying to support and guide their kids will need it, too.

"When you poll parents, they are eager to have information about whether or not their kids are making progress," King said. "There is a more political conversation about assessment. But fundamentally, people want to know: Is my kid learning? Is my kid on track? Is my kid going to be able to have access to a good quality life, a good quality job?"