Assessment, Accountability, and the Adaptive Challenge of COVID-19
Updated: Jul 28
Written by: Jennifer Poon, with C!E staff: Gene Wilhoit, Linda Pittenger, Paul Leather, & Gretchen Morgan
Sincerest thanks to the following individuals who shared their experiences during spring 2020 and their perspectives on assessment and accountability in the COVID-19 era: Michelle Ampong, Tora Hines, Tony Monfiletto, Paul Tritter, and Jeremy Wilhelm.
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What does it look like for state and local education systems to ensure excellence and equity in the middle of a global pandemic – one in which unprecedented numbers of learners are disconnected and in which learning gaps will continue to proliferate?
In a phone conversation last week, Atlanta parent Tora Hines, who does hair for a living, described her up-close view of the “catastrophic” effect of COVID-19 on educational opportunity. “Some of the girls who come in, they don’t even have computers,” she says. “I ask them, ‘How’s school going?’ ‘Oh, I haven’t done school, I don’t have a computer.’” She adds, “Just imagine that your child hasn’t done any work since March.” What might it look like for states and districts to ensure educational excellence and equity for learners like Tora’s young clients?
At C!E, one thing the pandemic has not altered is our belief in the value of each child, their right to educational opportunity, and their innate ability to achieve lifelong success. As Gene Wilhoit says, “this is not a time to let up on a commitment to the kids. We can’t abandon the mission to ensure they achieve the knowledge and skills that are important for their success in life.” The pandemic cannot become an excuse for lowering expectations.
We also recognize that education leaders are now confronting this question in a dramatically altered reality that is changing our perceptions about equity and its implications for learning and instruction. As the Center for Assessment’s Scott Marion and Ajit Gopalakrishnan attest, “Attributing outcomes to school performance is uncertain in any year, but it is simply indefensible immediately following the pandemic.” Therefore the challenge before education leaders is to rethink how assessment and accountability models can uphold high expectations while also prompting critical investments that make achieving these expectations possible.
We believe these challenges cannot be confronted solely with technical fixes to previous systems of assessment and accountability. Technical adjustments like temporarily redefining accountability indicators, perfecting at-home proctoring of standardized tests, or performing “statistical gymnastics” to smooth over missing state assessment data may help refurbish pre-existing constructs around assessment and accountability, but they squander the opportunity for deeper, community-wide reflection that could bring assessment and accountability into greater coherence with the realities and complexities of teaching and learning in this COVID-19 era. In the words of Tony Monfiletto, who advocates for underserved students at Future Focused Education, an educational intermediary organization in New Mexico, and who spoke with me last week, “It’s a mis-reading of context. We’re in an adaptive moment, we’re not in a technical moment. What we need is for people to speak to the adaptive challenge. Not ‘how can we administer a standardized test’ but ‘what are the needs of kids.’”
"We're in an adaptive moment, we're not in a technical moment. What we need is for people to speak to the adaptive challenge. Not 'how can we administer a standardized test' but 'what are the needs of the kids.'
- Tony Monfiletto
On a recent Zoom call with C!E staff, I was talking with Linda Pittenger and Gene – both of whom previously helped to articulate a new vision for accountability in Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm – and Paul Leather and Gretchen Morgan, who have spent considerable time learning and leading in state education agencies, about the tensions states must reconcile in their assessment and accountability decisions next year. For the first time in decades, state standardized assessments are in question, and federal direction around future state testing is unknown. We have spoken with parents and teachers who perceive systems of assessment and accountability to be punitive and feel that testing next year would unfairly punish kids who have so much else to worry about. One teacher quipped in a viral Facebook post, “I don't want to hear one word about testing, unless it involves a nasal or throat swab.” At the same time, teachers will depend on better diagnostic and formative assessments to adjust instruction to meet children where they are, while district and state systems need robust information to address inequity at a systems level and to understand growth from this point forward. FutureEd senior fellow Lynn Olson reminds us that,
“As the nation’s struggle with the coronavirus has made clear, failing to gather information about a problem doesn’t make it go away. It makes it worse.”
- Lynn Olson
On that C!E call we all sensed that tensions like these cannot be resolved in state houses alone. Rather, we feel that true partnership between stakeholders with varied lived experiences and perspectives is necessary, and that local communities already hold parts of the solutions that state leaders can listen and learn from. Take the issue of inequity for example: for the first time in decades, states are unable to use their accountability machinery to measure achievement gaps. “And yet,” Gretchen notes, “inequity is more visible now than ever before.” What can be learned from how local systems are already capturing need and responding to it? How can investing in local wisdom and more authentic input from educators and communities better inform state decisions, like resource allocation to address root causes, and result in more useful information to inform student learning?
To help state leaders approach these conversations with their communities by applying what we’ve been learning to the COVID-19 context, we offer some of our wonderings in three areas – originally described in Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm – in which education systems can innovate to meet the adaptive challenge:
We further describe each of these areas along with questions relevant to the COVID-19 context in the following briefs, which are intended as fodder for education leaders and their local communities to explore together in collaborative, inclusive conversations about how assessment and accountability policies can best place students and their needs at the center.
We believe that change is both imperative and already happening; we need only to ask the right questions, listen, and answer the call to action. C!E is excited to support and learn alongside education leaders and communities as we leap from a semester of crisis management into a future of hope. We invite you in as a learning partner to help inform our thinking on this and other topics as they play out. What are you noticing? What are you wrestling through? We invite you to tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org or take our survey on how COVID-19 is changing your perceptions of education.
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