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As COVID-19 drags on, it is more important than ever to assess K-12 students

a girl watches her teacher on a laptop
Studies show that remote online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with growing achievement gaps among students.

The nation’s children are beginning their second school year in a row amid a maelstrom of educational disruption after some 18 months of learning behind a mask, behind a computer screen or some combination.

Given the uncertainty of the new school year dawning — continued mask mandates, the question of how COVID-19 variant outbreaks in schools will impact learning — it is more important than ever to assess students and determine whether they are achieving academically and how schools are performing.

Parents, educators, policymakers need to know because if children are not achieving and if schools are not performing, they must lay out strategies for getting everyone and every school back on track as soon as possible.

There is little doubt that the pandemic has wreaked havoc on learning. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in a recent report on K-12 education, “reduced access to in-person learning is associated with poorer learning outcomes and adverse mental health and behavioral effects in children.”

The disparities are more pronounced among Black and Hispanic children, a lesser percentage of whom had access to in-person learning during the 2020-2021 school year, the report noted. 

But the pandemic also threw a wrench into statewide educational assessments — the very tool educators use to measure how well students are learning. Such data help education and policy leaders target corrective resources and expertise where it is needed. But no states have achievement data for the 2019-2020 school year due to the sudden shift to virtual learning when the pandemic struck — and data from the 2020-2021 school year won’t be robust because participation rates were lower in much of the country compared to before the pandemic.

Without current and complete assessment results in hand from the previous 18 months, it will be even more difficult to figure out where children require extra focus and which schools are falling behind. And despite the gaping need for data, some lawmakers and teacher groups are calling for an end to standardized testing, just when it’s needed most.

In contrast, a group of civil rights, business and education organizations has united to press the Biden administration to stand firm on the use of statewide, summative assessments this school year. 

“It is more important than ever to collect valid, reliable, comparable, statewide data on student achievement and use that information to help improve low-performing schools and close achievement gaps exacerbated by the pandemic,” said the groups, which include the one I lead.

The groups warned against caving to pressure to end K-12 testing, saying in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, “it would be short-sighted and come with devastating consequences to no longer have quality, comparable measurements of student achievement to help us understand student recovery in the years ahead.”

The administration has yet to detail its approach to assessments in the new school year and whether it will allow testing waivers for states that seek them. Those of us who believe you can’t help students and schools until you know how they are performing are hopeful the Biden administration agrees.

Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant education secretary, said earlier this year that “obtaining data on student learning includes high-quality statewide assessments, and that data is critically important from an educational equity perspective.” A promising point of view indeed as families ready for the new school year. 

The nation’s children deserve the best education we can give them. To do so, we first must figure out what they need.

Jim Cowen is executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success and a former U.S. Navy officer.

Tags COVID-19 Education Health care Jim Cowen K-12 education Mask Miguel Cardona School virtual learning

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