Educators’ View: With Kids Finally Back in School, the Last Thing Teachers Want Is to Spend Class Time on Tests. But Kids Need Us to Do Just That

Carlotta Pope and Paula L. White

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For the past year and a half, teachers have worked tirelessly to connect with students. We moved curricula online and helped students get access to laptops and broadband and to navigate digital learning platforms. Virtual learning was better than nothing, but it wasn’t nearly as effective as the classroom for most kids.

Going into a new school year after a period that strained students’ social and emotional health, educators are focused — and rightly so — on getting onto a reenergized track of teaching and learning and supporting students’ mental well-being.

The last thing many teachers want is to sacrifice precious instructional time to assess student learning. But kids need us to do just that, because the information educators get from these tests helps to set them up for success.

After two straight years with few assessments, teachers lack critical information about how students have fared during COVID-19. But treating tests as they were always intended to be used — to measure the skills students have mastered, identify where they need additional support and direct resources accordingly — is essential for gauging what students have and have not learned during the course of the pandemic, what other skills they need to master and what support they need to achieve that.

Many teachers know that tests are far from a perfect measure of students’ academic, social and emotional growth. They want assessments that are closely aligned with the standards, they want a fast turnaround for results so they can be used to inform instruction, and they want test questions to be culturally relevant. The fact is that many district and state assessments fall short of those goals.

Teachers are also concerned about how test results might be used amid a pandemic — how we should think about assessing student learning heading in the new school year, what that will look like, when it will happen and whether the results be used to implicate educators for the interrupted instruction that has ensued during the pandemic.

The large influx of dollars districts will receive from the American Rescue Plan can and should be used to develop meaningful systems for addressing these concerns. To make up for the lost data educators would have had from annual state assessments, it is critical that districts collect their own by administering a test early in the school year. This will give teachers a roadmap for how to best meet their students’ needs.

Without a doubt, the pandemic impacted each and every student. But we can’t pretend that it impacted them to the same degree. COVID-19 didn’t introduce inequities in our public education system, but it’s the students who were already disadvantaged before the pandemic who were hit hardest by it. How big is this impact? Is it greater than we may think, or not as severe as we imagine? Without an assessment administered across the board, we simply cannot know.

But the impact of those tests should be limited. While it might make sense in other years to use assessments to help decide if a student is, for example, eligible for an honors class, that cannot be the case this year. The students most impacted by the pandemic — those who struggled to participate in virtual learning because of poor internet connections, a lack of adult supervision or quiet place to learn, or illness — must not be unintentionally penalized.

Nor should teachers be judged by students’ scores right now. Despite heroic efforts to reinvent curricula for digital learning and reach out to students and parents online, on the phone and by text message to keep them as engaged as possible, widespread chronic absenteeism made interrupted learning an issue of national concern.

The best teachers are laser-focused on their students — ask about any student in the class, and they can rattle off where they’re excelling, where they’re struggling and the strategies they’re employing to further advance their learning. The case for assessments is made not at the ground level, but at the 30,000-foot level. In other words, the best teachers may have a good sense of how their students are doing, but it gets harder with a large number of students or responsibility across several subjects. Equally important, leaders and policymakers need to know, too, if they have any chance of providing the right help.

Love them or hate them, assessments allow decisionmakers at the state and federal levels to see student progress not only at the classroom level, but across districts, states and different student populations. Without this kind of data, there will be enormous pressure to hand out dollars to the districts with the most political clout, rather than those serving the most vulnerable students. And, we will miss the chance to measure which programs and supports are making the biggest difference.

The federal government’s unprecedented investment in education is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to confront inequity in our schools head-on. Let’s make sure we equip policymakers, teachers and families with the information they need to make those dollars count.

Carlotta Pope is a high school English teacher in Brooklyn and a member of Educators for Excellence-New York. Paula L. White is the executive director of Educators for Excellence-New York, a teacher-led organization.

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