Wiener: To Avert Further Learning Loss, States Must Act Now to Gather Data About Students’ Access to Education

State leaders have a crucial job right now: to go on an urgent fact-finding mission to uncover the true extent of the educational crisis in America and how deeply it is impacting children’s lives. The needs of students and schools haven’t been adequately assessed or addressed, and this has to change immediately.

States are responsible for ensuring every child in America gets a quality public education. They devolve most of that role to local education officials and then hold schools and districts accountable for student learning based on test scores. In normal years, state assessments in core subjects like math and reading shine a light on whether students are learning as expected and on inequities in opportunities afforded to different groups of students.

But while these are important measures, this is not a normal year, and they need to take a backseat to a different kind of assessment of how schools are doing in meeting their students’ needs.

We know generally that far too many U.S. students are experiencing extreme hunger due to the ongoing pandemic and economic fallout. We know many of them lack the technology and internet access they need to succeed in a remote or hybrid setting. It’s also clear they’re having fewer beneficial interactions with teachers and peers. But we don’t have this information in enough detail, or on an individual student level. This is something that is needed, and which states have an obligation to pursue.

What states have to start collecting from districts and schools, and hold them accountable for, is opportunity-to-learn data.

Sometimes referred to as OTL data, this information provides vital details about which students have a computer and broadband access, who is attending class and how often, whether students are receiving grade-level instruction and turning in assignments, and what services and support are being delivered, whether through in-person, remote or hybrid learning.

Such information can come from reviews of school schedules, attendance logs, and surveys of students and staff, among other sources. The priority has to be on data that are actionable and easy to collect. All the data should be disaggregated by race, family income and disability status, to get a clear picture of opportunity and access gaps. With that information in hand, states and districts are better able to allocate resources strategically to meet students’ most acute needs.

Holding schools and districts accountable for opportunities doesn’t mean state leaders should forgo testing altogether. States should start working now to develop scaled-back spring exams that assess student performance in core academic areas, including by student groups to see the status of achievement gaps by race, family income and disability. But those tests should not be used for school or district accountability. The first priority has to be to get local authorities to seek out and act on much more urgent opportunity-to-learn data.

Such information will provide important contexts for any tests given, such as whether students are getting questions wrong because the content wasn’t taught, instruction wasn’t up to par or they were absent.

Revamping tests to accommodate students who are learning remotely or in hybrid settings has implications for security and privacy, as well as for legally required accommodations for students with disabilities and English learners. State policy leaders will have to think through those issues, as well as how to handle the technical challenges of comparing the results of this year’s restructured tests against past years’ exams for growth or learning losses. It is unlikely education leaders will be able to fairly and accurately compare new tests against prior years’ assessments, or exams given in person against those administered remotely this year. So, while there may be reasons to administer them, it’s unlikely states will be able to — or should — use them for accountability purposes. Better would be to use the opportunity-to-learn data as a core part of accountability rules this year.

Developing revamped tests will take months, so states have to act now if they want to still administer them in the spring. It’s true that they will likely have to seek waivers from federal rules to adjust their assessment and accountability efforts. But given the unprecedented challenges we’re facing, it only makes sense for the government, regardless of who is in charge after the election, to allow for flexibility and enable innovation.

States leaders must do more to support schools, and they must do so with a sense of urgency and with the needs of the most disadvantaged students top of mind. Our country is facing an educational crisis of monumental proportions. How we respond will have an enormous impact on the lives of young people in the short term and, likely, for many years to come.

Ross Wiener is a vice president of the Aspen Institute, executive director of the nonprofit’s Education & Society Program and a co-author of “This Is Not a Test, This Is an Emergency: Special Considerations for Assessing and Advancing Equity in School-Year 2020-21.” Previously, he was vice president for program and policy at The Education Trust and a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section.

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