We Don’t Just Need COVID Testing, Our Students Need Academic Testing Too

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When I was seven months pregnant with my first baby I developed a condition called preeclampsia. It can be quite serious—once it was a leading cause of maternal death—and treatment involves weekly (sometimes daily) monitoring of blood pressure, protein in the urine, edema, and other factors. We were lucky: Our beautiful baby was born healthy, if a little small for her gestational age, and I didn’t develop the most severe symptoms (although I was hospitalized twice and labor was induced at 37 weeks). 

Why did we have a good outcome? Because professionals carefully measured my condition and prescribed proven interventions like medication and bed rest.

Right now American education is in a different sort of crisis, one triggered by the  novel coronavirus. Those most at risk of loss are low-income students, disproportionately of color. This past May researchers at Brown University projected that “students would return to school this fall with approximately two-thirds of the reading gains relative to a regular school year and about a third to a half of the learning gains in math.” (The top-third of students were projected to return with higher-than-normal learning gains, a whole other topic.) According to NWEA, school closures from March-June cost students a third of a year in reading and a half a year in math. CREDO projects that, varying by state, students lost 136 to 232 days of learning in math. 

These are educated guesses. The only way to accurately gauge a child’s degree of academic infirmity is through careful measurements of learning loss, along with development of interventions to keep students on track for good outcomes.

How do we take those measurements? Through no-stakes assessments that give teachers and school leaders the data they need to create treatment plans. If states choose to not measure learning loss and take restorative steps, the disease will run its course.

One of those states is New Jersey.

This is negligence. This is prioritizing politics (not a truth-seeking enterprise but a power-seeking one) over children. This is systemic failure that threatens the well-being of an entire generation of students. (Regular readers know that, under former Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, the DOE’s aversion to measurement is a feature, not a bug. See the 64 Floor.)

Now, let’s be fair. The NJ Department of Education has posted on its website information on “Start Strong Assessments” available for reading (grades 4-10), math (grades 4-8 plus algebra and geometry), and science (grades 6, 9, and 12). 

Yet administration of these diagnostic tests is entirely optional. Senator Teresa Ruiz, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, said, “[t]he fact that it’s optional and they’re not requiring the data to go back to them, it just misses the whole intent of what is critically needed. We need to know what has happened during this pandemic.”

Ruiz is correct. We need data to treat the malady. Otherwise, we’re just giving up on our kids. Here’s Mike Petrilli:  “The path of least resistance here, and probably what most schools will do unless they’re encouraged to do something else, is just pass kids on and keep the conveyor belt moving.” 

We’re not alone in our willingness to paper over learning loss. In New York City, parent Maud Maron told the New York Post, “the [NYC]  DOE is running away from an honest assessment of how far behind students are right now. Hiding the evidence does not help kids who need the most help.This policy is about protecting adults.”

Similarities between Bill De Blasio and Governor Murphy’s Administration are never a good thing for kids.

Here’s what would best serve students and teachers: The NJ DOE should mandate that all students, grades 3-10, have no-stakes formative assessments  (which pinpoint precisely where students are struggling) in reading and math. These results would be shared with parents while school leaders and teachers come up with differentiated plans to address learning loss and, according to best practices, use acceleration, not remediation. 

Is this hard? Yes in the short-run, no in the long-run. Is this necessary? Yes, unless the powers-that-be are willing to sacrifice the academic well-being of our neediest students.

As the state fails in this most fundamental task, Kyle Rosenkrans, executive director of the non-profit New Jersey Children’s Foundation,* is hiring researchers to measure how much students have fallen behind. Rosenkrans told Chalkbeat, “We’re in this data black hole. You can’t prescribe solutions unless you have a sound diagnosis of the scale of the problem.”

And, to their credit, some school leaders are stepping up on their own, even without DOE mandates. For example, Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs is requiring that all schools use online assessments  so the district can “drill down in a laserlike way to see what those skill gaps are and how we can rapidly close those gaps.”

This should be happening in every one of our 600 districts. But it’s not.

Learning loss, like my preeclampsia, can be treated. But treatment is only effective when professionals —be it doctors or school leaders—carefully measure indicators and implement best practices. Instead we have vapid virtue-signalling. Let’s hope our new Education Commissioner is more concerned with student learning than feel-good pablum.

*Brightbeam, where I work, received a grant from NJ Children’s Foundation.

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