Analysis: This Spring Testing Season, States Must Gather Data That Ensures Every Student Has the Opportunity to Learn

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As the U.S. Department of Education responds to states’ assessment waiver requests, the debate around the role statewide exams should play in the pandemic recovery continues to intensify. Advocates opposed to administering assessments this year are critical of department decisions to deny waivers in states such as Michigan but allowing Washington, D.C., to forgo its exam. Meanwhile, testing advocates sound the alarm about department decisions such as one that could allow California to use localized, rather than state, assessments in countless districts.

Regardless of one’s stance on this issue, the reality is that results from spring exams will look very different this year than they have in the past. Yet, in the coming months, state and district leaders will need clear, objective data to help inform school improvement efforts and accelerate student learning.

As we discuss in Convening for a Common Cause — a set of policy considerations for the future of assessments and accountability recently released by Education Reform Now and NWEA, in collaboration with over 60 organizations from across the ideological spectrum — since key data about academic achievement will be severely limited in many states, more contextual information is needed.

Districts are likely already collecting some pieces of such “opportunity to learn” (OTL) data, such as access to devices and broadband internet, instructional delivery mode (remote, hybrid or in-person), changes in district enrollment, and supports and services provided for historically underserved students. However, if this information is to aid in accelerating student learning, states, districts and schools need to take a systematic approach to its collection, reporting and analysis.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, districts must identify resource inequities to be addressed through schools’ comprehensive support and improvement plans. The law, however, doesn’t define in any detail what constitutes resource inequities, largely leaving districts and schools to their own devices. Now, with concerns about COVID learning loss at their peak and President Joe Biden proposing a massive increase in federal Title I funding, this is the perfect time to harness these equity reviews by methodically collecting and reporting relevant contextual data and using it to drive pandemic recovery and improvements to educational equity more broadly.

This process cannot be limited to the school level. A number of the inputs that OTL data measure — such as funding formulas, distribution of teachers and access to technology — are actually determined by districts and states, meaning schools have little ability to leverage these data for change on their own.

As state departments of education prepare for an unprecedented spring testing season, they need to take an active role in their districts’ and schools’ futures by collecting data that will ensure every child has the opportunity to learn. The infusion of federal relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, including the 5 percent set-aside to address learning loss, provides states with an opportunity to make key investments in systems, personnel and accelerated learning approaches. In particular, states should:

  • Upgrade or create new data systems that seamlessly integrate both OTL and federally required data. Unifying different types of data from across districts into a single system can help better identify individual students in need of additional resources, as well as highlight opportunities for policy shifts to better serve all students or underserved populations.Throughout the process of selecting and adopting any new system states much engage with key stakeholders—state and district leaders, as well as educators—to ensure that, in addition to simply integrating data, any new system can generate systems- and student-level reports and dashboards in ways that make these data both understandable and actionable.
  • Take a more active role in monitoring and providing technical support to districts. District leaders are often stretched thin even when they are not consumed with reopening schools, and often lack the training needed to make decisions based on complex sets of data. Therefore, states should step up by providing ongoing training and support around how to interpret data—particularly if states have adopted new systems—and develop data-informed, equity-focused interventions and supports for schools and students. And once data-informed plans are in place, states should continue monitoring districts’ progress to ensure continuous improvement.
  • Use state assessment and OTL data to inform resource distribution to students who have been the most deeply impacted by the pandemic—including students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, English Learners, and students experiencing homelessness. Federal COVID relief funds have provided states with an unprecedented sum of additional funds, but these funds are at risk of being wasted if they are not targeted to the schools and students with the highest need. Harnessing vital state and district data to distribute relief funds at state’s discretion—and guiding districts to do the same will be key to best leveraging these funds.At the same time, states should pursue broader reforms to state funding policies, such as adopting students-weighted funding formulas, to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources once federal relief funds are exhausted.

Pandemic-related disruptions to state summative assessments—and the federal funds allocated to address the educational recovery—provide a key opportunity for state, district, and school leaders to develop data-informed responses that recognize key policy levers, at each level of governance, and ensure that those most impacted by the pandemic receive the resources and supports they need to accelerate learning in the short-term, while driving long-term improvements to struggling schools.

Nicholas Munyan-Penney is senior policy analyst for K-12 policy at Education Reform Now. Previously, he taught highschool English Language Arts in New Hampshire, in both charter and traditional public schools. 

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