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Commentary: This is no time to stop measuring SC student learning

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Jennifer O'Neal Schiess

South Carolinians, like the rest of Americans, are under a lot of stress and anxiety. For schools, it could get worse. State Superintendent Molly Spearman is seeking a waiver from standardized testing to "relieve anxiety."

But what about the anxiety produced by uncertainty? Spearman’s proposal would leave students, parents and communities in the dark on how students are doing during a pandemic that is here to stay in the near-term.

Information about how our schools support students is more critical than ever as we navigate a pandemic that already has upended two school years. Why stop measuring schools’ progress toward high expectations for student learning?

As justifiable as waiving testing may have been last year given the enormity and rapid pace of disruption resulting from the pandemic, a waiver request now is the wrong move. Continued challenging circumstances, including logistics around virtual learning, should not translate to a lack of transparency about what students are or are not learning.

If South Carolina does receive a waiver, South Carolina's schools will lose another year of data that represents the only available measure of performance for every student in every school — data that can expose inequities in outcomes for students and drive decisions about where to target resources.

While the immediate impact of COVID-19 on student learning is largely unknown, researchers predict students could enter the coming school year missing 30% to 50% of what they otherwise would have learned. For students with learning gaps prior to the shutdown — disproportionately low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities and English learners — learning lost to COVID piles on top of any prior unfinished learning. The cumulative impact could translate into devastating disruption to the educational pathways for our most vulnerable students.

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How schools respond to those widened gaps in the next school year will mean the difference between a temporary impact or a generational one. Students served poorly now will themselves be held accountable through diminished opportunity and potentially lifelong consequences of inadequate educational preparation for an opportunity-rich adulthood.

By many accounts, distance learning this past spring was a bumpy ride. A national survey found 25% of districts surveyed provided more than three hours of instruction to students in kindergarten through second grade.

Another 23% reported an hour or less of instruction per day. Students in low-income districts spent less time learning new content and more time reviewing content taught earlier in the year than students in wealthier districts. We simply cannot afford to forgo collecting data and understanding the quality of instruction students receive.

Assessment and accountability systems are not perfect. They don’t account for some measures of student success, such as social-emotional learning, learning in untested subject areas and the breadth of learning a student achieves in a school year. In the short term, South Carolina should consider amending how the data are used, how schools are held accountable and for what, in order to respond to shifting needs and priorities brought on by the pandemic.

In the longer term, there is undoubtedly room to improve the rigor and relevance of these systems, as well as how we account more holistically for student learning and development.

But now is not the time to abandon the only data that provide transparency into how every public school is doing. Luckily, the U.S. Department of Education is telling states “not so fast” when it comes to waivers.

We were all caught off guard this spring, and teachers, schools and districts scrambled to make the best of an impossible situation. In many cases, they were not set up to succeed. But we are not off guard now, and our education system will be defined by how it moves forward for each and every student.

Jennifer O’Neal Schiess is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit that advocates educational innovation to improve outcomes for underserved students, and former senior advisor on public education for the Texas legislature.

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