All Aboard!

When the recovery train leaves the station will we be ready to hop on board

Throughout this month I have stressed the importance that planning will play in the recovery from the impact of the pandemic on student learning. What does that planning look like?  What should be considered?  And what role do large-scale state tests and their results play?

In this post, I share my thoughts on five big picture aspects of planning for the recovery. In reality, they apply to planning even in normal times, but are particularly important at this time.

  • It was my understanding there would be no math
  • One-size-fits-all. Not
  • Where don’t matter, long as we’re goin’. Well, yes and no.
  • Can you get there from here?
  • This is only a test

It was my understanding there would be no math

Initial analyses by interim assessment providers suggest that the impact of the pandemic on student learning may be greater in mathematics than in reading. Such a finding is not surprising. The education community’s struggle with mathematics is as longstanding as it is well-known. A prime example, of course, has been our failure to understand the implications of the first formula that most of us learned in elementary school:


The distance we can cover is directly related to the amount of time traveled and the rate of travel. The amount of time needed to reach a destination is related to the distance that must be covered and the rate at which it can be covered. The rate of progress needed to reach a goal is determined by the distance that must be covered in a specified amount of time.

Much of the education reform effort of the past two decades, particularly accountability requirements, is built on the idea that all students assigned to a grade level will reach the same destination at the same point in time; that is, all students will demonstrate proficiency on the grade-level standards at the end of the school year. And this will continue to occur year after year as students progress from one grade to the next. This outcome is expected even though students start at very different points along the path to proficiency, the amount of time available for instruction is fixed, and there are significant individual differences in the rates that students make progress – notwithstanding the effectiveness of instruction.

A key part of recovery planning will require being realistic about what can be accomplished in a particular amount of time; and doing so without diminishing expectations for certain groups of students or for individual students. True, that task is easier said than done; but at least it doesn’t require math.

One-size-fits-all. Not.

One size never fits all and one approach for all students (e.g., extending the 2020-2021 school year, longer school days in 2021-2022) will not be the optimal solution to planning for the recovery. Some students will need more support than others. More importantly, some problems will be more critical and immediate than others. It is a widely held belief that it is critical for students to achieve a certain level of proficiency in reading by the end of third grade. Therefore, some type of literacy supports in summer 2021 for students who need them may make perfect sense.

At the other extreme, there is probably no need to schedule summer classes to make up the unit on types of rocks that wasn’t covered this year in middle school science. Students can pick up that very same information in their high school earth science course or even later in a college natural science elective —#RocksForJocks (just a hypothetical example, not speaking from real-life experience).

It may not be a big deal that fifth-grade students did not get to make life masks in art class this year. On the other hand, it may be very important that the mask project was part of an interdisciplinary unit on cultural background and personal identity, and there are some books that were missed whose message really should be fit back into the curriculum at some point.

Decisions about groups of students, individual students, and the curriculum will all be part of planning for the recovery.

Where Don’t Matter, Long as We’re Goin’. Well, Yes and No.

 There were many times on the 40-minute train ride from Boston to a week of meetings in Providence that I was tempted to just stay on the train and go wherever it might take me. It’s the journey not the destination, right?  Staying on the train, however, would not have been a good career choice. Similarly, starting down the road to recovery without a clear sense of where we are going is also a poor choice.

This is the great paradox of K-12 education in the United States. At its core, K-12 education is a journey of discovery. The kindergarten teacher has no idea where the journeys of each of the 20 smiling faces in front of her will lead. Who will be the doctor, the artist, the teacher, the entrepreneur, the researcher, the retired assessment specialist with a blog?  The K-12 journey has to be flexible and undefined enough to support each of those outcomes. At the same time, there is a core set of knowledge and skills that all students must acquire to make the journeys to each of those destinations possible.

Ideally, that core set of knowledge and skills is what is included in the state content standards and assessed on the state test. Providing students the opportunity to discover their own destination requires that they make some clearly defined stops along the way.

For most students in most years, those stops at the end of grades 3 through 8 are clearly defined by the state’s grade level content and achievement standards. For other students, however, who might be starting further behind in a particular grade level or who might require more time, it will be critical to have a clear sense of where they are going in the next one, two, or three school years. It may be a 2-month recovery process for some students and a 2-year path for others.

In addition to knowing where students are going, having a clear understanding of where they are now and how they got there will be invaluable to planning the journey forward.

Can You Get There From Here?

Folks here in Maine apparently are famous for responding you can’t get there from here when asked for directions. In education, our problem is not that you can’t get there from here, but rather that there are so many different ways to get there from here.

As we are planning for the recovery, it would be great if the field were just a bit further along in research on learning progressions, Neal Kington’s learning maps, or Jere Confrey’s learning trajectories. There is a lot that we do know from that research, however, to help guide decisions about the various pathways students might follow to get from point A to point B. Perhaps most importantly, knowledge regarding the topics, concepts, standards that might be bypassed along the way either because they will be picked up elsewhere or are, in fact, non-essential will be critical to planning an efficient recovery.

This effort will require planning and coordination across grade levels. One of the unintended negative consequences of moving from grade span standards (e.g., K-4, 6-8, 9-12) to grade-specific standards was that it removed the necessity of bringing educators together within a school, across districts, or statewide to look at the big picture, to determine, and take ownership of decisions about the best paths to reach those grade span mileposts.  Planning for the recovery, however, will require a renewed focus on the big picture, the whole journey.

This is only a test

This is a test. This is the yearly test administered by the state department of education. This is only a test.  If this were a real intervention it would be occurring much more frequently, be much more expansive, and would provide results much more useful to local educators.

 One thing that we must avoid with the recovery is perpetuating the myth that the state test can and should provide information directly to teachers and schools to guide their instructional decisions for individual students. Sorry, not gonna happen.

The primary uses of state test results will be to establish a recovery baseline, to help identify areas (i.e., physical locations) across the state which are in particular need of resources and support, and as a tool to monitor the success of recovery efforts.  Secondary analyses of current, future, and previous state test results can also be used to identify areas (i.e., content, knowledge, skills) which are most critical and/or those in which local educators need additional support and guidance.

As always, at the local level, ideally, state test results will confirm what local educators already knew about the performance of their students, schools, and the district, as a whole.  The test results can also provide useful information to allow a local district to compare their recovery efforts with those of comparable districts.

Last Stop – Look Around and Make Sure that You Take Everything With You

More than anything else, planning for the recovery from the pandemic should provide another example of just how limited a role the state test can play in informing local educational decisions – a critical role in informing policy to be sure, but a limited role, nonetheless, with regard to individual students.

This is a lesson we should have learned long ago, but maybe the third time’s the charm.

As state tests in content areas like health, arts and humanities, and social studies fell by the wayside in the early 2000s, we were reminded of the limited scope of the mathematics and English language arts tests. As educator evaluation based on state test results unfolded under the Obama-Biden-Duncan administration, we were reminded of just how many local educators engaged with students in non-tested grades and subject areas. Now, as planning for recovery from the pandemic progresses, we will be reminded that 96%-98% of educational decisions have nothing to do with state test results, and that’s OK. That’s as it should be. This is only a test.

Image by Bill Bowler from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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