During the pandemic, school districts must deal with uncertainty, not ignore it or take shots in the dark.
Using Assessments Wisely This Year
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that ignoring data does not make a problem go away. As schools reopen this fall, educators face an unprecedented challenge in determining how best to meet the individual social, emotional, and academic needs of students impacted not only by prolonged school closures but by long-standing, systemic racism.
Teachers, school leaders, and parents will need better and more targeted information than usual this year because the stakes for student learning are so high. Today, as part of its contributions to the Evidence Project, the Center on Reinventing Public Education is releasing principles developed by a consensus panel of experts to help schools, districts, and states make decisions about assessments to inform instruction.
I was struck by four big ideas that came out of the panel’s statement, which I helped write:
First, students’ physical, social, and emotional wellbeing are paramount as schools reopen this fall. Educators will need to spend the first few weeks of school focused on building strong relationships with each and every student and on creating spaces—whether in-person or online—where students feel well known, well cared for, and respected. Spending that time will provide the foundation for future learning. We must prioritize measures of school climate and culture and the context for learning, not just measures of academic achievement.
Second, the measures that matter most this year are those closest to the classroom. Think about the quizzes, end-of-unit tests, and checks for understanding embedded in high-quality, standards-aligned curricula that can help teachers decide what to do next. Investing in high-quality instructional materials and professional learning for teachers on how to effectively use them, in my view, is probably one of the best investments that districts could make this year. Such materials can provide a backbone to help bridge in-person and remote instruction. Interim assessments that measure students’ progress in a comparable way across classrooms and schools and predict whether students will meet end-of-year standards can help inform resource allocations and school and district organizational strategies. But districts and schools should first ask what constructive actions they plan to take based on those results, before rushing to buy off-the-shelf tests.
Third, the goal of testing this year has to be helping students access grade-level content, not trying to make up every gap in knowledge and skills that students missed last school year. Our nation has a long history of using test results in ways that cut students off from rigorous learning—such as tracking and remediation of low-level, basic skills—with a disproportionate impact on students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income families. One of the panel’s primary principles is “do no harm.” Assessment results this fall are likely to uncover even wider disparities among students in the same grade and subject than in prior years. That will demand schools to flex—from mixed-age groupings, to team teaching, to more extensive use of one-one-one tutoring—based on detailed information about what students need.
Fourth, change the aperture. Traditionally, we’ve used large-scale assessment primarily to help policymakers with accountability decisions. That’s still important. But parents also deserve clear, accurate information about test results to help them advocate for their children. Parents have spent the last six months on the front lines of their children’s schooling. They won’t expect to be left on the sidelines this school year. Schools and districts need new approaches and protocols to engage parents in honest conversations about their children’s learning.
Assessments matter. Just as a GPS can help guide us to our destination, the right assessment for the right purpose can help guide smarter teaching and learning. Yes, we need innovation in assessments. But the panelists were also clear that useful tools are out there to quickly get a handle on both social-emotional and academic learning. Schools and districts can start with what they have. Just don’t use the assessments for more than they were designed to do.
Lynn Olson co-authored Learning as We Go: Principles for Effective Assessment During the COVID-19 Pandemic, and has written about assessments as a Senior Fellow for FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University.
For many students returning to class in the coming weeks, it will be back to school online.
States are dumping the instructional planning burden during an unprecedented modern pandemic onto teachers’ laps (or laptops).