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Updated guidance tells districts to plan on administering state assessments for the school year

On Friday, state leaders updated the 2020-21 planning guidance for Minnesota’s public schools. Included was direction to districts to prepare and plan to administer all required statewide assessments for the school year. This is a good thing, even if it might be challenging.

As a former teacher, I recognize that students are not defined by the bubbles they fill in. But in order to help them achieve success outside of the classroom, assessments do still matter. They not only help gauge where students are at, but they can also help guard against lowered expectations. And students still need to master reading, writing and math—even during a pandemic.

Given that many students were struggling and behind academically pre-COVID, measuring student achievement and academic progress through state assessments is important so that we can better understand who needs extra help. We know learning loss has occurred from school closures (and is likely still occurring), and given the widespread concerns that have been raised about student learning under a distance learning model, “upholding the assessment system this year would help to ensure that schools are doing everything in their power to keep all students engaged and working towards grade-level standards,” writes Aaron Churchill with the Thomas Fordham Institute.

Upholding the assessment system this year would help to ensure that schools are doing everything in their power to keep all students engaged and working towards grade-level standards. Indeed, concerns about schools falling prey to the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is one reason why civil rights groups have been such outspoken advocates for assessments, including their administration this coming spring.

Another year of cancelled state tests would only compound the problem, leaving us even less informed about the academic toll of months of disruption. Communities would likely have to rely on anecdotes and assumptions about student needs—hardly the foundation for effective planning—and they’d need to wait yet another year to begin tracking progress moving forward. Another gap year in state testing would also complicate the calculation of student growth (or “value-added”), a critical measure that provides a look at school quality that isn’t tied to pupil demographics.

Data recently released by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) estimates that the average lost days of learning this past spring in the 19 states studied ranged from 57 to 183 days in reading and from 136 to 232 days in math. A school year is typically 180 days. Given that assessments were waived during spring 2020 (which was necessary), the findings of the CREDO report show us how important upcoming assessments will be.

Without data to help us identify struggling learners in need of extra support, too many students will pay the price. As Churchill concludes, “[S]tudents are no less in need of an excellent education than they were before the health crisis struck. To understand where students stand—and to offer help if necessary—parents and communities need the information yielded by state assessments.”

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