Op-Ed: Post-pandemic education, getting beyond worries about ‘learning loss’

Patricia Wright | February 5, 2021 | Opinion, Education
Falling back on pre-pandemic practices, like continuing with statewide testing, is easy. But the current moment calls for a different approach
Patricia Wright

There has been a lot of talk lately about “learning loss.” How will students catch up? What will educators do when schools are finally able to return to full in-person instruction? How will they know where students are and what they will need to fill the learning gaps?

I would like to suggest that we first reframe those questions and then propose some solutions that will truly benefit our students and our school communities. The central question should be, What will students need when they return to in-person learning? They will need support — academic, social and emotional. They will need to feel good about surviving the pandemic — a frightening, lonely and difficult time for everyone, even their family members and the adults who will be welcoming them back to their schools and classrooms. They will need to know they are safe and secure and that they have learned so many things during this time that will help them to be successful moving forward. Social and emotional learning, trauma-informed instruction, and the creation of healing-centered environments need to be at the top of every school’s priority list.

Students do not need to feel like they are now susceptible to failure or that their future is in jeopardy because they may not have fully grasped certain skills and knowledge. Educators know that students need to see themselves, not just making up what they may have lost, but moving forward and accelerating their learning. Educators know how to do this work. They do it every day. Schools across the state are already collecting student data, examining and revising their curriculum and making plans to continually use assessment information throughout the next school year to inform their instruction. This will allow them to provide the necessary interventions and supports to ensure students can continue to accelerate their learning.

This is the professional practice of education, something we do very well in New Jersey.

The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association wants everyone to keep the focus on what is best for our students who, through no fault of their own, may find themselves a little lost as they begin the 2021-2022 school year. We, like our students, don’t want to focus on what is broken because of the pandemic. We want to focus on lessons learned that can inform us in developing an even more robust educational system going forward. This means that the state must be proactive by providing the tools that will be most helpful in reaching our collective goal, ensuring students are successful in learning and in life.

We know that every stakeholder, including parents, educators and legislators, wants to know exactly where students stand in terms of their learning. However, we must consider whether giving students the statewide standardized assessment this spring would answer that question. Are we willing to put already stressed students in a situation that may compound their anxieties? Will we receive valuable data that will inform instruction in the fall?  This data will certainly fail to be reliable given the number of variables impacting the test-taking environments during a pandemic. It will be impossible to ensure the results yield meaningful information about all categories of test takers, including students from low-income families, racial and ethnic subgroups, and students with disabilities.

Falling back on pre-pandemic practices, like continuing with statewide testing, is easy. But dare I say it again, we are in a pandemic, and we are not operating schools in traditional ways. This moment in time calls for a different approach.

State testing is summative; in other words, it is assessment of learning. Schools will need to depend on formative assessment, which is assessment for learning. It is currently used by educators to identify where students are in relation to the academic standards that are required in their current grade level. All learning gaps will not be evident from one end-of-year test. And using those assessments results to focus on remediating deficits is a mistake. Time spent focused solely on remediation may actually cause students to fall further behind.

Formatively assessing students throughout the year will allow educators to bridge the learning gaps as students continue to move forward, focused simultaneously on remediation and acceleration. Having a full year of in-person instruction informed by the use of formative data will allow students to “catch up,” to gain confidence and to get the targeted assistance they need through intervention and extended learning. This will put the system on track for collecting new baseline summative data from state testing in 2021-2022.

Next, we should all be asking, what do educators need to provide the best possible in-person experiences for students beginning in the fall of 2021? During this crisis, so many decisions have been left to local control. Flexibility and local decision-making are needed. However, the New Jersey Department of Education can assist all schools by providing essential tools and not leaving every district to reinvent the wheel. The department has long voiced the desire to be more than an agency of compliance, but one that is a resource to schools and districts. In the past few years, the department has made efforts to provide standards-aligned units of study in language arts and math across all grade levels. Now is the time to create more tools that are standards-aligned, like common formative assessments, a platform for educators across the state to share best instructional strategies and resources, and professional learning experiences to build the capacity of educators. Tools can also be built at the state level to support social and emotional learning and tiered systems of support. Providing such tools to all districts begins to address the issue of providing equitable instruction for all New Jersey students.

Instead of funding the spring testing administration, let’s be proactive and use that money to develop the tools that will truly inform instruction in 2021-2022.  And imagine, God forbid, we ever find ourselves in this situation again, we will have created a statewide system of tools to support the work of teaching and learning, wherever it may occur.