As an uncertain school year begins, the only certainty is that schools face great challenges in meeting every student’s academic and social-emotional needs.
To support students in what could amount to more than a year of disrupted learning, schools and those who oversee them must establish new expectations of what high-quality schools achieve. To do that, they need access to strong information and data about what students know and how schools are doing so that we can make sure that all students are learning, starting with using annual assessments to ensure that all students get the education they need to be successful in life.
States, districts and charter school authorizers should ensure that statewide assessments are administered during the 2020-21 school year, as well as work to expand the definition of high-quality schools. What kinds of exams to administer, and how, requires thoughtful local deliberation and discussion, but consistent and comparable information is critical to making sure schools and students receive necessary supports.
Those who do not believe in testing will argue that now is not the time to assess student learning. On the contrary; we must know how schools and students are doing. While testing this year should not be used for high-stakes accountability, it should be used to understand what students know and need. By assessing student learning, we can align instruction and social-emotional support. Information from assessments can also help to identify more effective ways of reaching students in these uncertain times.
Implementing assessments this year — and expanding what schools and oversight bodies measure to define a high-quality education — is no easy task. Students may be learning remotely for the full academic year, or their school may change locations in communities that are hard hit by the pandemic.
But information about how students are doing informs educators and school leaders on what instruction to provide. Surveys show that many students, especially in low-income districts, did not receive as much live instruction or focus on new learning material as students in higher-income districts; that many students with special needs did not receive critical services; and that many students never logged in to distance learning at all.
Assessments are the key reason the public knows about, and can measure progress toward addressing, persistent opportunity gaps that low-income students, students with disabilities and students of color disproportionately face. At the same time, measures of school quality should include a comprehensive picture of the important outcomes that students should achieve, during COVID-19 and beyond. That’s why the organization I lead, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, in partnership with Bellwether Education Partners and leading authorizers, released a new toolkit for authorizers of charter schools that defines school quality as both student wellness and student success.
Authorizers can work with communities and schools to determine new ways schools should think about quality, such as measuring achievement in advanced coursework, access to formalized tutoring, ways schools are making good on their unique missions, school climate and how often students are moving from school to school.
There are some instructive recent examples of authorizers expanding what school quality looks like.
In New York, the Charter Schools Institute at SUNY is piloting new ways of measuring student work as demonstrative of learning and school quality, in addition to traditional measures. The Colorado Charter Schools Institute is working with Montessori schools to evaluate student learning in alignment with the unique Montessori learning model. Authorizing work in New Orleans Public Schools, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Albuquerque Public Schools are taking a serious look at how racial inequity impacts the definition of school quality.
This work has resulted in important initial results, including a stronger and shared understanding between authorizers and educators of what schools are trying to accomplish and the degree to which they are; a focus on improving important outcomes for students, as opposed to arguing over the validity of data; stronger school-to-community partnerships that advance student learning; necessary dialogue and action as long-standing inequities are made clearer; and more effective communication between authorizers and schools regarding how different approaches to learning contributes to student success.
Expanding the definition of high-quality schools created with communities is not an excuse to let schools where children are not learning continue to fail students. Schools that do not meet high standards must not be allowed to continue.
The COVID generation is at great risk of losing a lot. But with more and good information, schools can rise above the challenges we face. In the process, we can create an enduring and better way of knowing how schools are helping students and communities excel. We just need to do the work.