As a result of the pandemic and school buildings being shuttered across the state, Tennessee parents have watched their children’s education this year from a front-row seat. Despite this, parents still have many questions about their children’s growth. It is time for us to put the plans in place to provide parents with the necessary information to ensure this disrupted school year doesn’t stall their children’s academic progress.
We can start to answer those questions by ensuring the 2021 assessments take place and that all results are shared publicly. At TennesseeCAN, we strongly support Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn’s plans to conduct the annual spring assessments in April. Tennesseans–including parents, students, educators, taxpayers and more–deserve to have access to the best available data about how Tennessee’s public schools have served, and continue to serve, Tennessee’s children during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Delivering parents the information they want on their children’s progress means addressing a number of practical concerns. How do you give a test to thousands of students while maintaining social distancing and other public health precautions? Will the results be reliable given different testing environments and other changes to how the test is administered?
We’ll need options for testing this spring that ensure students are assessed where they are learning. This could mean using paper assessments so that students learning remotely have access to the same type of test as students learning in school buildings. We may need more time to complete all the tests, so that students in various hybrid schedules have ample opportunity to participate. This could mean lengthening the testing window from two weeks to six weeks.
Most importantly, we need a commitment to transparency from every school and district. We can only build a stronger education system if we can clearly see the foundation. Publicly available data on both learning loss and achievement will ensure that parents are equipped to make the right choices for their children and our state is best positioned to equitably and effectively allocate resources.
Let’s go a little deeper into how Tennessee might best approach some of these implementation challenges. Normally, security is a high priority when it comes to these tests. If we’re going to hold schools and educators accountable, we have to know that the results are fair and accurate. This year, Governor Lee announced that there will be no negative consequences attached to assessment results, a decision we support. This frees schools, teachers and parents to see the test as what it was designed to be: a tool to uncover whether each child has learned what they were supposed to learn.
Relaxing some security protocols – the ways we typically ensure that nobody cheats – will also make it easier to spread out when the test is given. Instead of all students taking the test within the same two-week window, we could give districts up to six weeks to administer tests. This would allow for staggered testing with social distancing. Districts could, for example, dedicate two weeks to testing 3rd and 4th grade students; then two weeks for testing 5th and 6th grade students; and finally, spend two weeks testing 7th and 8th grade students. Throughout this expanded window, high school students would have multiple chances to participate in various end-of-course assessments.
There won’t be one solution that will work for all the different regions of our state. What makes sense for Grundy County likely won’t work as well in Shelby County. And that’s okay. School districts can work with parents, teachers and other stakeholders to make sure their plan works for their community and for their families.
In a typical year, we use assessment results for a lot of different purposes. This year, the information is critical so we know whether students are progressing, how to plan for summer and fall 2021 and what resources are required to ensure learning continues for all Tennessee students, whether at home or in the classroom. Is that fourth grade student ready for fifth grade? If everyone is behind in certain areas, can we plan to cover that material in the first month of the next school year? Alandria Williams, a parent in Memphis, echoed what we are hearing from many families when she shared, “I am in favor of assessing learning loss because it is critical to meet the needs of students. It is important to also know how the data will be used.”
So much about how the coming months will unfold for Tennessee families is unknown. Let’s work together to make sure that what we learn–how our children are progressing, and how schools are educating– is leveraged to provide the best possible future for Tennessee kids.