Tag Archives: 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. 

A Teacher’s Perspective on Testing in a Pandemic (and Beyond)

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

When the Biden administration announced required state standardized testing this spring, I was angry. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. A vast majority of students at the charter school I teach at in Boston plan to stay remote the rest of the year. What would testing look like in this context? And what could the results tell us?  

Even pre-pandemic, in my five years as a high school teacher in Massachusetts and North Carolina, state tests were used for labeling schools and little else. Pressure the tests created affected my approach to teaching in ways that didn’t always serve my students. I love algebra and, in my experience, it’s much more engaging when taught experientially. But I saw a tradeoff between the time experiential lessons take and my ability to cover the total volume of material I knew my students were likely to encounter on state tests. I never received detailed student achievement reports for my current class or last year’s data, meaning that state test results didn’t help to inform differentiation in the classroom. To ensure that I provided my students with the support they needed, I relied heavily on formative quizzes and “exit ticket” assessments, but having access to student achievement reports would have exposed gaps that existed before students stepped into my classroom. 

My initial anger subsided as I read more about the arguments for and against testing this spring. An opportunity exists for systemic change thanks to flexibility the Biden administration provides states in how they use test scores. Instead of labeling schools, scores can potentially inform how states and districts spend $123 billion in K-12 funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act stimulus package. These funds can benefit all students, especially those often left out of the conversation, like students in foster care or the juvenile legal system.

Flexibility can better enable 2020-21 test data to be used productively for students and schools, creating a reset opportunity from the frustrating status quo. In order for leaders and administrators to use the data to equitably support all students, change must follow the intent in five key ways:

Tests should be scored, with reports in teachers’ and families’ inboxes, by mid-summer

Teachers begin planning for the upcoming school year over the summer, often hoping to spiral in content that needs to be remediated the very first week of school. In my experience, reports from state tests are typically not released until several weeks into the school year. Providing detailed score reports to teachers earlier, on both their incoming students and last year’s class, would allow for more practical application of test scores in instruction.

The process of sharing test data across relevant agencies should be smoother

Schools are not the only organizations that can use test data to support students. Other agencies, such as the foster care system and family support services, could use group-level data, or individual student data with appropriate privacy safeguards, to better support students outside of school. But not every state makes this kind of data sharing transparent, consistent, and student-centered. If teachers aren’t getting this data in practice, it’s doubtful that other adults in children’s lives are getting the information they need. Even the fact that a student missed testing might be useful for a social worker or another service provider to know. If other agencies are aware that a child they work with did not attend tests, they can work with the family on a back-to-school preparation plan for the fall.

School leaders and administrators should identify and support students missing from testing

The Biden administration relaxed participation requirements to account for remote schooling and ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty. Education leaders and analysts should consider which populations of students may be absent from testing this year and the potential implications for interpreting results. Some students who aren’t present for testing may need additional support and remediation. Populations with less access to remote learning include students experiencing homelessness, students living in poverty, and students living in multigenerational households. Statistically, these students are more likely to be children of color — a lack of urgency in school administration supports may widen opportunity gaps. 

Test results should inform how schools and districts spend federal stimulus funds

Districts and schools with widening opportunity gaps based on this year’s tests should shape their stimulus spending plans to address those results with research-backed interventions and improvement plans. Identifying populations most in need of support in these schools, and targeting resources accordingly, is critical. For example, if high schoolers underperformed in math, additional funding could go towards hiring in-school math tutors for students in need of additional learning support. 

Academics shouldn’t be the sole focus 

Academic performance is essential. As an algebra teacher, I want to know that my students are leaving my class ready to take on more advanced mathematical analyses. But I also want my students to get more from school than what is reflected in the state standards: I want them to feel safe, engage in deeper thinking, learn how to communicate with their classmates, and build a love of learning. Many students are struggling right now with the disruptions, trauma, and isolation the past year has brought. Remote learning has limited students’ social interaction and, for many, impeded their sense of safety and security. In addition to heeding what we can learn from state standardized tests, administrators should plan for interventions that support and serve students’ mental health and social-emotional needs. 

I’ve moved on from my initial anger at state testing this year and have embraced a wait-and-see mindset. It will be interesting to see whether this year’s results will have a meaningful positive effect on my students and/or signal larger culture shifts around state standardized tests in the long run. Regardless, the most urgent priority for educators and school administrators should be marshalling all resources and information at their disposal to support all students in recovering lost instructional time due to the pandemic. 


Kate Keller completed a project internship at Bellwether Education Partners this spring focused on
educational continuity. She has taught high school for five years and is pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Development and Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The Accountability Wars Are About to Begin

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told states not to expect a waiver on state assessments this year. Some in education will surely push back with the argument that COVID-19 upended metrics historically used to hold schools accountable — student performance and engagement in particular — and, as a result, schools can’t be held accountable at all.

But the question of assessing students shouldn’t be if testing should happen (and yes, states should give assessments this school year), but rather how should we assess teaching and learning in COVID-19 and beyond. 

For charter schools, authorizers can and must continue to hold schools to high standards, especially in this time of uncertainty, by assessing school performance using new metrics and existing metrics defined in new ways; and by rethinking the authorizer role in helping schools meet the needs of students and families.

Assess school performance using new metrics and existing metrics defined in new ways

Authorizers historically measured school performance using proficiency and growth on state-level annual assessments. But real questions exist on what a missing year of data nationwide means for comparing data from previous years. Similarly, past student engagement metrics, previously measured through attendance, or student’s physical presence in the classroom, aren’t possible in a virtual environment.

Continue reading

Accountability Policy Needs to Adapt. To Do So, Policymakers Must Clarify Their Priorities.

This fall is turning into a slow-motion disaster for students and families. Many districts planned to implement some form of hybrid learning to start the school year, only to have those plans scuttled in the aftermath of rising COVID-19 cases across the nation. On top of the logistical challenge of shifting to remote learning on a short timeline, families and educators are making these changes without a shared understanding of students’ academic needs since state assessments were cancelled this past spring. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be painfully obvious now: our education system is in crisis. 

This moment calls for significant changes in how school systems meet the needs of students, both during the current crisis and once we return to something that resembles “normal.” Assessment and accountability policies are no exception. For too long, these systems have been asked to serve multiple purposes, from identifying schools for intervention, to providing data to inform instruction, to informing parental choice.Refocusing the Priorities of Accountability Report

In a new brief, my coauthors and I argue that now is the time to clarify and refocus the priorities of school accountability policy. In Refocusing the Priorities of Accountability, we explore three different scenarios where policymakers successfully limit accountability systems to one primary function: 

  • As a means for policymakers to intervene in schools
  • As a tool for schools to improve instruction
  • As a platform to inform parents as they engage with their school communities and/or make school choice decisions

For each of these single-priority approaches to accountability, we explain how it could work in practice and articulate what trade-offs policymakers would have to make to adopt that approach. 

Continue reading

6 Takeaways — and Video — From Our Webinar on Accountability

The bipartisan coalition that originally supported standards-based accountability is not as strong as it once was, but on Monday afternoon, we saw a glimpse of a revitalized and refocused effort to ensure student learning remains at the core of education policy decisions. To extend our recent work on the past, present, and future of accountability, Bellwether hosted a conversation with three national leaders with deep experience in accountability policy and systems: Jeb Bush, former Florida Governor; John B. King, Jr., CEO of The Education Trust; and Carissa Moffat Miller, Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (Watch the full conversation below or read a complete transcript here.)

Each of these leaders approach education policy from different positions and political perspectives: the panel included a former Republican governor, a former cabinet member of the Obama administration, and a representative of states’ top education leaders. Nevertheless,panelists agreed on the enduring value of the core tenets of accountability, while stressing the need to adapt  systems to meet the current challenges facing schools.

I observed six key takeaways for policymakers as they adjust accountability systems for next school year and beyond:

  • Accountability is vital, even during a pandemic
  • Accountability can and should adapt
  • Accountability needs to be more than testing and school ratings
  • Better testing could improve accountability systems
  • Choice can add value to accountability systems
  • We can and should make next year count

Continue reading