An Assessment Response to Anticipated Learning Gaps

Implications of School Closures on Assessment Needs

According to Education Week, “as of March 23, 2020, 7:31 p.m. ET: 46 states have decided to close schools. Combined with district closures in other states, at least 123,000 U.S. public and private schools are closed, are scheduled to close, or were closed and later reopened, affecting at least 54.8 million students”.

It was a little more than a week ago that schools started planning to close in support of mass efforts to slow the spread of this novel virus. The situation is incredibly fluid with local-, state-, and national-level decisions related to school closures and learning needs being made on a daily, even hourly basis. Our K-12 and post-secondary education communities are now faced with the reality of both the near- and long-term implications of suspending in-person classes for an indefinite period of time. 

The number and potential magnitude of effects are unknown and, unlike other historical events that have resulted in school closures in the US, this one is neither specific to a particular location nor limited by expectations about the possible scope of the event itself. Past natural disasters such as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina or the 1989 earthquakes in Northern, CA, although devastating with long-lasting consequences, were discrete and localized events, relatively speaking. 

There are no historical examples of school disruptions of this scale in the US that might be used to guide our decisions about what works and what doesn’t work as we plan for transitioning students to online and homeschool environments overnight. Nor do we have precedent for how to accurately interpret summative assessment scores given the gaps in learning that are likely to occur, that is, if end-of-year tests are even administered this year.  

This situation puts us in an uncomfortable position that requires new thinking to solve extraordinary problems on a national scale, and yet keep individual student needs central as we make decisions about student learning and assessment moving forward. Chris Domaleski lays out possible scenarios of the potential impact on state assessments along with insightful thoughts regarding possible limits in how we might interpret and use scores for their intended purposes. 

There is one thing that we can say with some assurance; ALL students are being affected, and as Nathan Dadey points out, it will be our duty to focus on identification and support of the needs of those most disadvantaged by school closures and surrounding events. 

The matter of examining impact after the fact is likely to be further complicated by the circumstance that traditional analyses to evaluate the impact of interruptions on summative test results may not be useful because they are dependent on comparisons with students who were not affected by the interruption in order to draw informative conclusions about those who were. We simply are not likely to have unaffected student performance to use as a basis for comparison. 

On the other hand, if all students are affected, we might ask, are summative results useful for their intended purposes for the 2019/2020 school year? It is clear that the results should not be used to measure school effectiveness, and I speculate that if the largest impact on our education system (or the one that we care about the most) is the gap in learning created by school closures then our most urgent assessment needs are to provide information to help educators identify and address specific learning gaps. 

In this case, diagnostic and formative assessments may be the most useful tools to respond to gaps in the opportunity to learn. If this sounds familiar it should. It echoes demands from educators, parents, and the public more generally asking assessment experts to put useful, actionable student performance information in educators’ hands to help them address individual and classroom learning needs. 

If some variant of ESSA-mandated testing does occur in the Spring or Summer or even the Fall of 2020 we should not be occupied with questions of whether scores might still be interpreted as intended. However, whether all, some, or no state summative testing occurs in the 2019/2020 school year, it is entirely possible that we will be more concerned with identifying the gaps in students’ opportunity to learn that we will know will be present to some degree for every student. In this case, it will be important to respond with focused attention on high-quality assessment types that are designed to help educators understand each student’s learning needs post-COVID-19.  

Assessment strategies that address individual learning needs will necessarily differ from summative assessments. For example, these assessments would be focused on fewer learning targets, explicitly linked to curriculum, and able to quickly provide feedback at a smaller ‘grain size.’  

Identification of these smaller grain learning targets might start with an evaluation of the curriculum topics that were being taught at the time schools were closed and include those that were expected to be covered throughout the period of school closure. Findings will help guide the kinds of focused assessment practices that will be most useful in identifying where each student might be struggling due to the extreme circumstances that have forced our schools to close.