Why Parents, School Leaders, and Advocates Shouldn’t Underestimate the Power of Statewide Assessments
Over the last year, students have learned to cope with significant uncertainty and navigated learning in new ways. With the support of committed educators, families, and caregivers, many students have embraced change and continued to learn new skills — from math to music — sometimes beyond what they learned in classrooms prior to the pandemic. Yet, varying access to nutrition, technology, and new instructional content have intensified deep inequities and have fortified barriers to learning that existed even before COVID-19.
As a result, students will have significant unfinished learning — lessons that students missed or didn’t master during COVID-19 — because of school closures and distance learning. This is especially true for Black, Latino, and Native students and students from low-income backgrounds. For example, a study from McKinsey indicated that students, on average, could experience up to five to nine months of unfinished learning by June 2021 — meanwhile, students of color could be six to 12 months behind at the end of the school year. Similarly, a study from Stanford University estimated there would be up to a year of missed learning for students from low-income backgrounds.
But these are just estimates. To date, there has been no broad, non-biased assessment of student learning to help us understand the scope of the issue and to identify which students, schools, and districts need additional resources to accelerate learning through strategies like targeted intensive tutoring or expanded learning time. School leaders cannot begin to address a problem if they can’t see its scope. Absent this critical data, what will assure families, communities, and policymakers that these funds will go to the schools that need it the most and that they are addressing the specific challenges brought on by the pandemic?
New funding through the recently signed American Rescue Plan Act will send states over $125 billion to help school districts recover. Statewide assessments will help districts and schools determine how to allocate the funds where they’re most needed. For parents and families, data from statewide assessments can give them a clear, objective picture of how the education system is serving their children. And while classroom grades or tests that help teachers diagnose where students are in their learning are another piece of information to help parents and families, this information can be subjective and is not comparable from class to class or even school to school.
Consider the high school class of 2025, who will start ninth grade this fall. The last time those students took a statewide assessment of their grade level progress was in the spring of 2019 — two years ago, and before COVID-19 shifted nearly everything about how students learn. If states do not administer statewide assessments this spring, system leaders, policymakers, parents, and families will not know how much the pandemic has affected their students and their school. As a parent to two school-aged boys, I deserve to know how my school is faring and supporting its students as compared to other schools in my district and whether system leaders are directing adequate supports that meet those needs – for my children and for all children in the schools in my community.
For Black and Latino students, this data shines a light on disparities in access to educational opportunity and provides civil rights advocates and other stakeholders in educational equity with data to garner additional support for their state’s most underserved students. While estimates — and lived experiences before COVID-19 even struck — show that Black and Latino students consistently receive less access to high-quality early childhood education, strong and diverse educators, participation and success in advanced coursework, and safe learning environments, comparable statewide data is one of the only concrete tools that advocates can use to show disparities in how students are served so that educational resources can be increased and directed to communities and students that need them most.
The circumstances of last year, continuing into 2021, have also elevated the unique decisions that state and district leaders must make every day as they put safety first for students and educators in re-opening schools. We believe, as many others do, that in administering assessments this year students and educators should not be going to physical school buildings solely for the purpose of taking a test. If a state is unable to safely administer assessments under its normal processes and protocols, it should take advantage of flexibilities the U.S. Department of Education has offered to delay or expand testing windows, administer tests remotely, and shorten assessments. It is also important that this data not be used in a manner that negatively impacts students, teachers, or schools/districts — in particular, that assessment results will not be used to justify withdrawing funding or other resources from a school. Finally, no matter the year, education leaders should ensure assessment data is used to open doors to opportunity like access to advanced coursework, not to close them.
As a parent, but also in unity with advocates, researchers, and leaders, I recognize that statewide assessments can’t tell us everything we need to know. However, they are the only tool we have right now to compare the pandemic’s impact on student learning across schools, districts, and, most critically, across student groups. We can’t go back to a time not so long ago when policymakers and education leaders allocated resources based on anecdotal evidence and personal preferences and where parents were in the dark. We must remain steadfast in our commitment to prioritize students, make available those tools that can provide the information on student progress using comparable, statewide measures that help communicate clear expectations for decision-makers, parents, and students.