We are now seven months into this pandemic crisis and we still haven’t provided most parents with the answer to a simple question: have their children fallen behind? 


Districts, educators and policymakers are all concerned about learning loss. What is missing right now in far too many cases is hard data. One immediate step we could take is to repurpose last spring’s assessment tests, which were never given, and put them to use this fall as shorter diagnostic exams. 

Every year, states release a set of questions from the annual spring assessment for grades 3-8. Test items are released in both reading and math and for every grade level. With a small amount of work from test vendors or departments of education, those questions could be organized into quick diagnostic exams in core subjects. Parents could sit their child down and ask them to complete 10 questions in reading and math from either their current grade level or last year’s grade level and quickly score the results. This kind of optional tool can be provided to all children, whether they are enrolled at a traditional public school, public charter school, microschool, pod or homeschool. 

While these micro-tests could help families with a rough sense of where their students stand this fall, with a little more time, we could use a similar approach to do a full mid-year checkup. To do so, states would instruct their test vendors to pull a sample of questions from the past three years of assessments and administer two- to three-hour mid-year assessments in the first two weeks of January. You’d end up with a statewide baseline, parents would have immediately usable information about their child and we would surface some of the implementation challenges of giving an assessment with students learning remotely that would help us prepare for end-of-the-year assessments in the spring.

As states hit pause on typical accountability consequences attached to assessments, we have the opportunity to use tests for their original purpose – understanding what students know.  Likewise, this year provides us with an opportunity to involve parents much more directly in the assessment process and ensure the information is useful to them and their children. 

Where schools and districts are already moving forward with these mid-year diagnostic plans,  we should focus on making sure the data at the grade and school level is released publicly. In Tennessee, for example, the Department of Education asked all districts to assess learning loss at the start of the academic year. Yet they have not required districts to publish results of those assessments. With parents in a front-row seat for their child’s education like never before, it is only with transparency that they will be able to serve as the strong partners with teachers that we need them to be. 

One positive change that may come from 2020 is putting more control into the hands of parents – starting with transparency about what their child knows right now. Getting creative about testing is one concrete way we can make sure parents have the information they need to help their students not only survive, but thrive in this disrupted school year.

Liz Cohen was the former Policy Advisor for 50CAN.


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