Category Archives: Student Assessment

What Can Spring 2021 Assessments Tell Us About Learning Loss?

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

As spring 2021 state assessment results come in across the country, the academic impacts of COVID-19 are no longer theoretical. The preponderance of data points in the same direction: student learning was significantly impacted by the pandemic. States are reporting significant decreases in math, reading, and science proficiency since 2019 — with students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income families among the most impacted.

How did we get here, and what can schools, districts, and policymakers do about it? 

Learning loss is not a new concept in education, although it might go by many names. In its simplest form, it’s the result of a significant disruption in education that can lead students to lose previously acquired knowledge or skills, or shift to a learning trajectory that takes them further from grade level standards. Pre-pandemic studies looked at two kinds of learning loss 1) the “summer slide” or “summer setback” that many students experience between one school year and the next as well as 2) the short- and long-term academic effects of school closures due to weather and natural disasters. 

In the rocky shifts to and from remote learning (and back again) over the past year and a half — often without sufficient support for educators and families — it seemed very likely that students would experience some form of learning loss, perhaps in entirely different ways than previously understood. Emerging studies throughout 2020-21 consistently showed that the negative academic effects of COVID-19 disruptions were real, and were most pronounced among historically marginalized student groups. But the idea of learning loss received surprising pushback, mostly from those who felt the term stigmatized students or blamed educators for circumstances outside of their control. Some claim that learning loss is a “myth” and indicative of “deficit framing” because it ignores the student learning during the pandemic outside of traditional curricula. Examples of non-traditional learning include resiliency, creativity, and technology skills. However, acknowledging the value of non-traditional skills doesn’t erase the importance or urgency of developing academic skills and knowledge that are essential for college and career readiness. 

As states across the country analyze spring 2021 assessments, the results are often startling. Some examples from 2020-21 school year data include:

  • North Carolina, where student scores decreased across all end-of-year assessments. In most cases, fewer than half of students were meeting grade level expectations.
  • Minnesota, with a 7 percentage point decrease in students reading on grade level and an 11 percentage point decrease in on-grade-level math proficiency.
  • Virginia, where the percentage of students passing state tests is down by 28 percentage points in math, 22 percentage points in science, and 9 percentage points in reading.
  • Tennessee, which experienced a drop in overall statewide proficiency of five percentage points — with Nashville and Memphis schools that serve the largest proportions of students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and English language learners seeing an 8 and 11 percentage point decrease, respectively, in overall proficiency in math, social studies, reading, and science. 

There are important caveats to these results at the student, school, and state level, and comparisons to prior years should be made with caution. Students may have also been tested under unusual pandemic conditions and some states shortened or changed their assessments this year with permission from the U.S. Department of Education. Furthermore, some, but not all, states have reported atypically low test participation rates. Federal law usually mandates greater than 95% test participation at the state, district, and school level. North Carolina and Tennessee reported 90% and 95% student participation, respectively, but only 75-80% of students in Virginia and 78% of students in Minnesota took those states’ assessments. 

Even with these caveats, evidence is mounting that learning loss is a real challenge facing schools across the country. Some see these data as representative of “arbitrary” academic standards. While one can reasonably debate the utility of academic standards that align with age-based grade levels, the fact remains that, as education author and commentator Elliot Haspel put it, skills that students would have otherwise learned to a certain level during a normal school year were not learned during the pandemic year. 

It’s time to move beyond the semantics of what to call the problem and instead figure out what we’re going to do about it. Here are four key recommendations for states and local school districts to address learning loss in the current 2021-22 school year:

  • Continue leveraging data to provide targeted academic support by regularly administering interim assessments to monitor student progress and using the data to drive rapid cycles of improvement — where changes in strategy or approach to academic intervention can happen in real-time as needed. 
  • Adopt accelerated learning strategies in lieu of traditional remediation and train teachers on effective accelerated learning pedagogy, which has been found to be more effective than traditional remediation in helping students regain pre-pandemic skills and pick up where they left off — especially for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. 
  • Supplement increased academic investments with robust mental health supports by providing resources for adequate numbers of trained professional counselors and social workers, wraparound services, and the high-quality delivery of evidenced-based social and emotional learning curricula. 
  • Adopt approaches to intentionally teach and assess non-academic skills in a traditional school setting, recognizing that schools are responsible for teaching students essential life skills such as time management, goal setting, self advocacy, effective communication, and resiliency.

Acknowledging learning loss does not mean that students learned nothing. It does recognize that students’ academic learning experiences were deeply affected by the pandemic in ways that need urgent action. Students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income families have been disproportionately impacted by pandemic learning conditions. 

It’s important that we name the challenge and it’s incumbent upon states and local school districts to invest the resources into addressing this issue, or risk further exacerbating long-standing educational inequities. 

Back to School: What’s Your “Magic Wand” Education Solution? (Part Two)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay for Pexels

Join Ahead of the Heard for a lively back-to-school series expanding on Andy Rotherham’s original Eduwonk post, What’s Your Magic Wand?, featuring reflections on wish-list education solutions heading into the fall from teachers, school leaders, academics, media types, parents, private sector funders, advocates, Bellwarians…you name it.

At Bellwether, we’re focused on the 2021-22 school year ahead but also on what we’ve collectively endured since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a gross understatement to say that it has been a lot, that mistakes have been made, that many rose to the occasion achieving amazing things for students (while others did not), and that countless lessons were (re)learned. It has been a season where optimism was sometimes elusive and where challenges often seemed insurmountable. 

So we thought we’d do something a little different…and try to have some fun.

We turned to contacts across the country in the education sector and asked them this simple, hopeful question. Answers vary as widely as each participant’s background and will be featured over a two-week span.  

Teachers, students, and families will enter into a 2021-22 school year unlike any other. If you could wave a magic wand, what’s the one education issue you’d address or solve right now, and why?

Laura LoGerfo
Assistant Director, National Assessment Governing Board (submitted as a parent and not on behalf of the Board)

“In order to address massive and unknown variations in learning, my magic wand would have schools and teachers implement universal diagnostic testing, with frequent assessment updates and teaching aimed at attaining fundamental skills and knowledge as swiftly as possible.  

The first step would be to get kids situated in the classroom by establishing a warm and welcoming environment for students to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically. Almost immediately, kids would be given diagnostic assessments to determine their skills and knowledge in reading, math, science, and social studies. There would be no ceiling, no floor, no false constraints of what we mistakenly call ‘grade level,’ and no assumptions of what kids did or did not learn for the last 18 months. 

As a next step, teachers would immediately figure out plans for each kid. Group them by similarity (with flexibility built in as the weeks progress and diagnostic assessments are updated, enabling kids to move up, out, in, or over skill levels/topics) and by skills/knowledge, not age. Assign teachers by strength. Group size matters less than the effectiveness of the instructor. Use technology wisely and strategically.  

I’d incorporate this within my pet idea of ditching twelfth grade completely, except for those who need that year for final refinement of skills and knowledge. Instead, for that ‘senior year,’ 17-year-olds would spend their mornings working on life skills and reflecting on what they do in the afternoons, which would be working, volunteering, or interning (depending on family circumstances) with the elderly, with the young, or in nature. The 17-year-olds who qualify to work with youth would be assigned to assist teachers with tutoring so that differentiated instruction can be a real thing, rather than a myth.”

Mike Goldstein
Parent; School Founder; International Education Leader; General Education Polymath

“With a magic wand, I’d like to give students the choice to consume less K-12 public school, on an individual kid basis, with a very short leash/prove-it approach that’s easily revoked.    

Students would still attend school but less of it, possibly just three days each week. In exchange, individuals (not the school system) would take full accountability for their learning.  

At the elementary levels, students would attend school until lunchtime and then go home every day.  

High schoolers would unobtrusively come and go during class (no need to fake desire to use the bathroom). They could skip a whole class without penalty, while remaining accountable for the learning, and giving the teacher a timely heads-up.  

During these school breaks, high school students would have three choices. First, go to a school-designated lounge. Second, leave campus, go out for walks, or get coffee with a friend (many schools have had open campuses for seniors for a long time). Third, participate in anything fitness-related if a gym class isn’t already using the space/equipment.  

This idea starts with older students but works younger steadily, beginning with the uber-responsible kids and working toward the moderately responsible. It would require parent permission and freedoms would grow if students hit certain milestones.”

Joel Rose
Co-Founder and CEO, New Classrooms

“The pandemic laid bare the profound implications of reforms that were aimed exclusively at optimizing an approach to schooling born in the industrial era. It is time to redesign the way in which we do schooling in ways that by design are mindful of breakthroughs in brain science, that leverage advanced technological tools, that enable learning both within and outside the classroom, that meet the unique strengths and needs of each student, and that systemically support the development of the whole child.”

Yonatan Doron
Chief Partnership Officer, Branching Minds

“The pandemic shined a spotlight on a gross inequity with which most educators were already quite familiar: Many students (particularly students of color and students from rural communities and low-income families) still lack access to consistent, high-speed internet and devices at home. As more and more educational assessments, assignments, programming, and school-home communications have moved online, it’s even more important for policymakers and educational leaders to address the disparity so that all students can succeed.”

Daniel T. Willingham
Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia; Author of Why Don’t Students Like School?

“Modern physical plant for every school.”

Tim Daly
CEO, EdNavigator

“Unfunded teacher pension obligations. They are absorbing increasing amounts of education funding in some of our largest states and preventing badly needed investment and innovation.”

Michael J. Petrilli
President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

“My magic wand would be teaching dramatically more history, geography, and science in grades K-3 when the kiddos return this fall. That’s because it solves three problems for the price of one! First, alongside teaching foundational reading skills like phonics and phonemic awareness, beefing up kids’ content knowledge (and thus vocabulary) is the best way to boost their reading comprehension. Second, teaching little kids about the wonders of faraway places and faraway times, and the mysteries of the natural world, is the perfect way to avoid the temptation to do terrible, boring, ‘remedial’ education in the wake of the pandemic. And third, the early years are the ideal time to give kids a solid grounding in these subjects, without all of the controversy surrounding topics like Critical Race Theory, given that almost nobody thinks 6-year-olds are ready for all of that.”

Stay tuned for more in our “Magic Wand” series and join the conversation on Twitter @bellwethered.

(Editorial note: Some organizations listed in this series may include past or present clients or funders of Bellwether.)

Back to School: What’s Your “Magic Wand” Education Solution? (Part One)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay for Pexels

Join Ahead of the Heard for a lively back-to-school series expanding on Andy Rotherham’s original Eduwonk post, What’s Your Magic Wand?, featuring reflections on wish-list education solutions heading into the fall from teachers, school leaders, academics, media types, parents, private sector funders, advocates, Bellwarians…you name it.

At Bellwether, we’re focused on the 2021-22 school year ahead but also on what we’ve collectively endured since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a gross understatement to say that it has been a lot, that mistakes have been made, that many rose to the occasion achieving amazing things for students (while others did not), and that countless lessons were (re)learned. It has been a season where optimism was sometimes elusive and where challenges often seemed insurmountable. 

So we thought we’d do something a little different…and try to have some fun.

We turned to contacts across the country in the education sector and asked them this simple, hopeful question. Answers vary as widely as each participant’s background and will be featured over a two-week span.  

Teachers, students, and families will enter into a 2021-22 school year unlike any other. If you could wave a magic wand, what’s the one education issue you’d address or solve right now, and why?

Lauren M. Rhim
Executive Director and Co-Founder, The Center for Learner Equity

“If I had a magic wand, I would leverage this unique moment to 1) assess where students are and develop robust personalized learning plans for all students, 2) train teachers to effectively differentiate their instruction, and 3) leverage dramatic gains in utilizing technology to bring students back to schools that are actually designed to enable all students, including those with disabilities, to reach their full potential.”

Noelle Ellerson Ng
Associate Executive Director, Advocacy & Governance, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

“I’d fully fund the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. A fully funded IDEA returns hundreds of millions of dollars back to local district budgets — funds that can be used on general education. Special education students are general education students first, so it would truly be a win-win-win.

I’d also love a magic wand solution to reliable, accurate poverty indicators for education programs as well as increased efficiency in data collection, where federal, state, and local databases could aggregate and share, while also adhering to best practices around student data/privacy and Personally Identifiable Information.”

Chris Minnich
CEO, NWEA

“We have to take this massive infusion of federal cash to reshape how schools are funded. Most schools are driven by the amount of resources they have. Obviously, there are outliers that do more with less, but with more money in the system, it’d be a great chance to hold higher-spending districts harmless, and plus-up the other districts to allow them to compete for talent, among other things.”

Raymond C. Pierce
President and CEO, Southern Education Foundation

“If I could wave a magic wand, the education issue that I would address right now is stability in the governance of our schools and examining ways to improve how our schools are governed. Our public schools cannot improve if they are not governed effectively and efficiently. We need to find, develop, and replicate successful models of school governance that promote local control and community involvement. The instability that is common among school district superintendents and other leadership is highly disruptive to students’ education.

As we look at this opportunity to reset public education following the pandemic, any strategies that states and other jurisdictions implement for improving education ought to include an examination and development of models of governance that address that goal. Despite numerous changes and innovations in education over the last century, the model of school governance has not changed. How do we preserve local governance while increasing the stability that has proven elusive given the political nature of school governance in our system of elected school boards?”

Vanessa Steinkamp
Texas Educator; Parent

“As an educator, my biggest concern for the upcoming year deals with the exacerbation of structural inequities caused by disparate COVID-19 restrictions in schools. The baseline will be harder to navigate as some students learned remotely, some learned through homeschooling, some learned in hybrid models, and some learned in person. It creates another set of variables for teachers to remedy, and I worry about the psychological effects of students’ learning taking a back seat to disease abatement. I want learning to be fun, engaging, and multifaceted. The pandemic really stifled creativity and student engagement. 

As a parent, my primary concern will be pivoting back to a student-centered classroom focused on skill-based engagement versus teacher-driven content. With 3-foot masking rules, collaboration and interpersonal skills were all but forgotten. Lastly, I want to see less technology (no more Zooms or computer scoring) and more student-to-student interaction.”

Christian Taylor
Two-Time Olympic Gold Medalist; Four-Time World Champion in the Triple Jump; Classroom Champions Mentor

“I would encourage educators to push the importance of students having greater awareness of current affairs. There is a lot going on at the moment and many opinions flying around but very few facts to highlight and move situations forward. I believe students and teachers should be able to discuss current affairs, voice findings, and, for certain ages, propose solutions. This could help students process the things they are taking in around them but also give educators an idea of how these issues are affecting the student body. Some issues may be distant and the student may not have any connection to it, while others reflect real-time situations they are faced with in their lives/communities.”

Stay tuned for more in our “Magic Wand” series and join the conversation on Twitter @bellwethered.

(Editorial note: Some organizations listed in this series may include past or present clients or funders of Bellwether.)

Committing to Continuous Improvement in Schools: A Customizable Workbook

Figure 1: Bellwether’s refined continuous improvement cycle

Bellwether’s Academic and Program Strategy team partnered with K-12 schools in more than a dozen district and charter networks across the country in the 2020-21 academic year to adopt continuous improvement (CI) cycles that diagnose and reverse unfinished student learning through an iterative, evidence-based approach. In this final blog post, the team provides a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context. 

Last week, we unpacked the increasing value of continuous improvement (CI) cycles in education settings and included reflections from four partner schools on what Bellwether’s distinct CI process looks like in practice. 

In Bellwether’s refined CI approach, the technical and adaptive components of the cycle (Figure 1, represented by a circled “T” and “A”) are intentionally blended. This approach enables school leadership to ground CI plans in measurable goal-based data metrics within aligned, agile teams and coalitions focused on supporting seamless execution on behalf of students. 

As schools reopen this fall, leaders and educators will need to get more strategic and efficient about diagnosing and reversing unfinished student learning in their unique school settings. Bellwether’s Continuous Improvement in Schools Workbook provides a customized way to do that. 

We hope this workbook will be a useful tool as school leaders assess and respond to unfinished student learning this fall and beyond.

It’s Time for a New, Refined Commitment to Continuous Improvement in Schools

Figure 1: Bellwether’s refined continuous improvement cycle

Bellwether’s Academic and Program Strategy team partnered with K-12 schools in more than a dozen districts and charter networks across the country in the 2020-21 academic year to adopt continuous improvement (CI) cycles that diagnose and reverse unfinished student learning through an iterative, evidence-based approach. In this first of two blog posts, the team unpacks Bellwether’s comprehensive approach to CI and what each step in the process looks like in K-12 school settings. Next week, stay tuned for a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context. 

The pandemic and its disproportionate impact on students from historically marginalized communities underscores the value of continuous improvement (CI) as a framework for understanding the depth of unfinished learning and responding to it in an urgent, data-driven, and adaptive manner. In the past decade, CI has worked its way into the lexicon of educators, largely due to the Carnegie Foundation’s plan-do-study-act cycle that has been applied to diverse education improvement efforts from implementing ESSA plans to closing achievement and opportunity gaps. This growing education application of CI draws on more than 30 years of CI best practices in improving products, services, or processes through successive, rapid, evidence-based cycles in a range of sectors. 

Since fall 2020, Bellwether has supported more than a dozen districts and charter networks in their CI efforts, within virtual and hybrid settings, and has developed a balanced approach to the process attuned to current realities in the field. Bellwether’s CI cycle (Figure 1) follows a familiar four-step cadence (“Envision-Execute-Examine-Enact”), but builds on prior models by adding a high-impact adaptive leadership action to what’s typically been viewed as a predominantly technical process. This modification — based on 21st century change management research from Chip and Dan Heath, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, and Dr. John Kotter — is grounded in the idea that while CI’s technical elements are critical to understand what needs to happen, the cycle ultimately doesn’t lead to sustained change without careful consideration of how that change will occur. 

In Bellwether’s refined approach to CI, the technical and adaptive components of the cycle (Figure 1, represented by a circled “T” and “A”) are intentionally blended. This approach enables school leadership to ground CI plans in measurable goal-based data metrics within aligned, agile teams and coalitions focused on supporting seamless execution on behalf of students.

What does this look like in practice?

Four of the schools Bellwether supported this year, each with its own unique context and focus, weigh in:

1. Envision

Achievers Early College Prep Charter School, a public charter middle school in Trenton, New Jersey, built and implemented a new, data-informed intervention program to accelerate the academic growth of its most vulnerable students. The technical work of the CI Envision stage consisted of AECP setting a vision to create a data-driven intervention program that would provide the right content to the right students at the right time. AECP then established a clear goal to leverage its intervention program to have 80% of its highest-need students reach 1.75 to 2 years of academic growth, as measured by the NWEA MAP assessment. Finally, AECP built a progress monitoring system to look at grade level aligned daily exit tickets in intervention and core classes to measure the effectiveness of both prerequisite intervention content and grade level aligned content. On the adaptive side, AECP built a coalition by having a strong eighth grade teacher team pilot this approach in its first CI cycle, enabling teachers to better troubleshoot problems in real time and facilitate training for the sixth and seventh grade teams in future CI cycles.

In AECP’s words: “[This CI cycle] improved our reflection on our targeted areas for improvement. We have been more strategic on creating intervention goals and maintaining strong leadership initiatives throughout our pilot.”

2. Execute

Seguin Independent School District, a K-12 traditional public school district outside of San Antonio, Texas, centered its CI work on developing teacher instructional capacity in a virtual academy. The technical work of the CI Execute stage consisted of a team taking action on its plan by hosting biweekly, district-wide Professional Learning Communities on virtual instruction, facilitating grade level planning time aligned to those instructional moves, and conducting 1:1 observations and coaching for virtual teachers. During this process, the SISD team gathered data and monitored progress on teacher and leader attendance, engagement, and perception of transferability of new strategies to the classroom. On the adaptive side, the team remained focused on designing high-quality supports aligned to the See it. Name it. Do it. Framework and the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s Virtual Look-Fors. However, SISD also had to remain agile by adjusting programs, processes, and communications as it responded to an historic set of regional ice storms, ongoing staffing shifts related to virtual instruction, and survey feedback from teachers. 

In SISD’s words: “The structures and logistics were set by the project plan and covered by the central office. This meant we had the capacity and brain space to respond to shifting circumstances and teacher needs as they arose.”

3. Examine

LEEP Dual Language Academy, a K-2 public charter school in Brooklyn, New York, focused on evaluating and coaching effective lesson planning and execution for guided reading in a hybrid setting. On the technical side of the CI Examine stage, LEEP measured impact by analyzing both process and efficacy data for its CI strategy. The team examined process data by analyzing the consistency of its strategy implementation, and dug into efficacy data to see how both teacher practice and student achievement outcomes were impacted. In this stage, the team identified the following key takeaways: (1) they were less consistent in implementing coaching and feedback on lesson execution and would need to make this shift in the second cycle of CI to drive impact, and (2) they saw less reading growth from virtual kindergarten students and identified the schedule, reading group size, and content prioritization as opportunities to address in the second cycle. The team’s adaptive work of celebrating small wins focused on noting the increase of consistency in lesson plan submission and feedback to teachers in guided reading. They also celebrated mid-year growth on the STEP assessment in second grade with 49% of students growing two reading levels or more after one month of implementation. 

In LEEP’s words: “After examining our data, I think that we have remained focused and nimble in our implementation and this has been done through careful data analysis to then inform next steps and any modifications needed to the plan.”

4. Enact

Promise Community School at Baker-Ripley, a small public charter school network in Houston, Texas, piloted a “Just In Time” (JIT) intervention model for elementary math instruction in a hybrid setting. The technical work of the team’s Enact stage centered on translating key takeaways from its first cycle of JIT intervention to make measurable shifts for a second cycle. In the first cycle of implementing the continuous JIT intervention strategy, the team saw a 30%-point increase in mastery for virtual students, however students’ proficiency fluctuated between 50 to 70%. In order to increase consistency of virtual student mastery, the Promise team shifted its data analysis to focus on remote learners by (1) analyzing remote student work and misconceptions, and (2) increasing engagement strategies during small-group virtual instruction. From an adaptive standpoint, the Promise team focused on clearly communicating adjustments for cycle 2, reinvesting the pilot team by including a rationale and updated goals for the shift, and inspiring through a reiteration of the bright spots observed in cycle 1. 

In Promise’s words: “It’s never too late to reset expectations (we reset in January). We use data to help zoom in on places for focus and problem solving, and we need to be flexible and innovative with what works for our kids.”


We hope that Bellwether’s CI cycle framework and glimpses into its application in schools help educators begin to think about how this process could live in their unique school settings. For questions or comments, please feel free to
email us, and stay tuned next week for a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context.