COVID-19: In Search of Continuity of Student Learning After Extended School Closures

Looking Beyond Large-Scale Assessment for Valuable Information to Support Schools, Teachers, and Students Following School Closures

I have been uplifted by the dialogue that is occurring across the country as we deal with truly unprecedented extended school closures and minimized services to families and students. I consistently hear state education leaders focus on the need to provide support to families and their children to ensure they are safe, healthy, fed, and continue learning; which requires continuous flexibility and identifying innovative approaches to how services are provided. 

One issue that has been at the forefront of many state leaders’ minds is that of large-scale assessment and accountability. Many states are trying to get ahead of the problem and have suspended statewide testing, while others are waiting to see how the conditions in their local schools evolve to make a definitive decision. While large-scale assessment plays a valuable role in providing large grain-size information to help us determine achievement gaps, infer opportunity gaps, and inform funding and resource allocation with a focus on equity, it may not be the most important piece of information right now. 

Reliable, valid, and fair assessment results are dependent on many factors, but require at least the following for the students who are assessed:

  1. An opportunity to learn the content expected in a given grade,
  2. Comparable conditions for learning that content, and 
  3. Standardized conditions to administer the assessments. 

It is possible to provide and make an argument for number three above. However, it is increasingly less and less likely to be able to ensure numbers one and two are upheld. Consequently, a large proportion of state accountability systems that are reliant on valid test scores will not have those test scores available to them this summer. 

The best-case scenario (from a data availability perspective) is that it will be difficult to interpret ratings of school quality, and the worst-case scenario is that it won’t be possible—or at least advisable—to develop ratings of school quality at all. A quick A + B = C scenario indicates that it is increasingly likely that we will be forced to focus on different types of information altogether to make interpretations about student learning.

Therefore, state leaders are right to turn the focus away from summative statewide testing and focus more on the immediate needs of schools and students. In my recent CenterLine post, I extended Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the needs of students in an educational environment (i.e., the Student Outcomes Hierarchy), which I reference below.

Maslow's Heirarchy in Relation to Student Needs During Extended School Closures
Fig. 1: Student Outcomes Hierarchy

It’s clear that the current situation is blowing up the entire foundation of this pyramid. With the outbreak of COVID-19, I’d like to reiterate my thoughts from my recent post: Specialists at different levels of this pyramid (e.g., large-scale assessment and accountability experts) rarely focus too far outside their layer of expertise. If we didn’t fully understand what is needed to fulfill these needs under normal constraints, I find it difficult to believe that we will be able to do so under constraints where the threat of social distancing measures and curfews are imposed. However, the speed in which educators have scrambled to put together online resources, for state and local systems to provide meals for students who need them, and begin planning for long-term closure of schools is quite amazing. 

My colleague Nathan Dadey wrote a blog post highlighting the possible impact of extended closures on widening the equity gap. I, too, am concerned that gap will be widened, but I also believe there are opportunities to draw the education system’s focus away from large-scale assessment and accountability to more actionable information that is already part of the system. 

I also believe that we can transition, at least temporarily via remote learning and eventually back in classrooms, to focusing on data that are far more valuable to understand the impact students are facing after being away from school for an extended period of time. 

Know Your Goal and Recognize the Value of Information That is Available to You in your Assessment System

Here at the Center, we are constantly talking about the purpose and use of assessments based on their intended design. We can quickly bin assessments into three big buckets (See Perie, Marion, and Gong, 2009): (1) summative, (2) interim, and (3) formative assessment practices (note, I’m referring to assessment practices referenced in the CCSSO definition—as advised by Wiley (2018)—that has been widely adopted by states that focus on the value of assessment literacy). As noted previously, the interpretability of summative assessments will be questionable. However, we should take great care to determine where the value proposition is in the rest of the assessment information available. 

I’ll speak more to formative assessment practices in the next section, so I’ll turn my attention to interim assessments here. Interim assessments vary widely in their design and intended use. I would argue that many state- and district-procured interim assessments look just like the end-of-year test in the form of mini-summative assessments that do little more than attempt to predict performance or determine whether a student is proficient. 

States and districts need to know what information they want to prioritize. If there is a need to understand broadly wide-scale areas of concern or success, perhaps a mini-summative interim assessment administered next fall under relaxed conditions might provide some of that information. Keep in mind that the use of these assessments should help us understand what is, not what should be. That is, these types of assessments can help us gather information about the current state of affairs but should not inform our typical high-stakes use where we compare current performance against standards, learning targets, or other schools. 

If there is a preference to understand and address the impact of lost instructional time at a finer grain-size, then perhaps it is more appropriate to focus on the widespread use of a more diagnostic or curriculum-linked interim assessment to help corroborate educators’ instructional observations. My colleague Michelle Boyer’s recent CenterLine post addresses this exact idea. 

Regardless of the approach taken with mini-summative or interim assessments, this is an opportunity for states to help districts and educators focus on more informative sources of assessment information and better link non-summative assessment to curriculum and instruction at scale. 

Trust Teachers and School Leaders but Equip Them to Have the Flexibility to Support Students 

Teachers and school leaders are constantly evaluating and assessing students in ways that are indistinguishable from good teaching. We should trust that educators will continue to evaluate where our children are, what foundational knowledge are they missing, and what gaps they did acquire during their time away from school. 

This is something educators do anyways, but it shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to recognize the critical need for a coherent curriculum and local assessments that are well-aligned to the state’s standards as a necessary component to understanding student gaps in learning. Additionally, by focusing our efforts onto local assessment practices and providing support to schools in the form of instructional coaches, extended time, additional services for high need students, and the like, we can begin to understand and monitor the impact extended closures will have on student learning and development. 

As many parents are probably learning (myself included), there’s a reason why historically the three professions are noted as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. From these crazy times, I hope a major takeaway we all have is that we recognize the herculean jobs educators have to not only teach, but also socialize our children in ways that go far beyond their formalized training. Perhaps as an additional consideration, we should reflect on how educators’ efforts should be reflected in school accountability systems along with traditional student outcomes. 

Final Thoughts 

If anything should be taken away from what I’ve written, I believe that we have an opportunity to make up for lost time through the use of less traditional assessment methods. My goal here is to remind us of how much information can be available and actionable and that we need to establish support systems for teachers who will be facing students’ social and emotional needs first, and likely their learning needs as a very close second.