Return to school, return to accountability

While the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in school districts having breaks from the requirements of statewide accountability systems, state leaders say it's time to track student progress again.
By: | June 3, 2020
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The COVID-19 pandemic led to a pause in statewide accountability systems for school year 2019-20, but state education chiefs who spoke during a recent online presentation by the Hunt Foundation said that tracking student progress remains important, and the drastic shift from brick-and-mortar to remote learning has highlighted achievement and opportunity gaps that must be addressed.

“Obviously there was no choice, really, but to cancel this year’s annual assessments as a result of COVID-19,” said John King, president and CEO of The Education Trust and a former U.S. Education Department secretary. “Nonetheless, when students come back, we are going to need diagnostic assessments to figure out where kids are and what supports they will need.”

King said it will be important for schools to identify how much student learning loss has occurred and make the necessary adjustments in the coming school year. He suggested that districts establish a team to determine what the future looks like, both for public health planning as well as improving educational outcomes and closing achievement gaps.

Eric Hall, senior chancellor for innovation at the Florida Department of Education, said intentional consideration of tools and strategies to close achievement gaps will be necessary, along with assessments, to address the achievement gaps that have been “exacerbated” by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, he said, the state will continue to rely on teachers, school leaders, and superintendents who have “turned on a dime” to provide distance learning during recent months. “We’re leaning heavily on our teachers, and we are going to make our big bets on our educators that are committed and doing the workday in and day out,” he said.

Florida is using attendance as an indicator of academic involvement to identify which students have not been engaged in curriculum and instruction since schools have closed. He said some districts are also using a virtual progress monitoring tool for students. Over the summer, he said the state will look at steps needed to phase in different options for schools in the fall, look at the student achievement information available, and then work with districts to address the individual needs of students.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath said the Lone Star State will be looking to gather information from parents and educators to determine how each child is faring. The state has created a voluntary online assessment that is purely a “diagnostic tool” that parents can administer before the end of the school year to see how much information students have learned in the past year. However, he said, diagnosis is only the first step. Educators should build an “action plan” for each child, which requires adequate action-planning resources for educators and parents “who are in the driver’s seat.”

Morath said the focus for educators should be on creating a growth mindset through which student achievement can improve, not “putting up a score at the end of the game.”

The state established a flexible framework designed to help districts of all sizes work through the systems that needed to be established to support all learners, he explained. In addition, for the state’s small rural districts that did not have central curriculum and instruction departments, the state set up a “default” set of options of remote curricular tools that were free and made available home learning packets for students without digital access that could be shipped to all districts in Texas.

In Tennessee, state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said there are no assessments until students’ basic needs are met, but some form of assessment is necessary to identify student progress on academic standards. She said the state is taking a diverse approach to learning, with learning materials available through different pathways, as well as broadcast on the state’s PBS television and radio stations. The state plans to expand the number of lessons available over the summer so districts can access them via YouTube.

Schwinn said the state will make an evaluative assessment available to schools and districts across the state when students return in the fall that will be a short-form of the summative assessment the students would have taken. “We need to make sure we have the right information and data to address whatever needs [students] have and accelerate them,” she said. “We certainly don’t want students who are progressing as they normally would to be sitting in a classroom for six or seven months repeating information they have already mastered.”

Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for ESEA Now, a DA sister publication.