Advocates, experts and officials cite a need to know COVID-19’s impact on student learning to tailor resources and supports

As the nation nears the one-year anniversary of widespread school shutdowns, calls are growing louder for more data on learning loss faced by students amid the pandemic, which is especially necessary to understand the impact on the most vulnerable students and how to direct critical resources.

This month, the U.S Department of Education announced what is billed as “the largest representative and highest-quality effort yet to gather vital data on the impact of COVID-19 on students and the status of in-person learning.”

The announcement come on the heels of an Executive Order by President Biden to ensure “the collection of data necessary to fully understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students and educators, including data on the status of in-person learning.”

The NAEP 2021 School Survey will collect data, which will be disaggregated by student demographics, including race, ethnicity, disability, English-language-learner status, and free or reduced-price lunch status or other appropriate indicators of family income, from a nationally and state-representative sample on the following:

  • The share of the nation’s schools that are open with full-time in-person instruction, open with online and in-person instruction, or fully remote.
  • Enrollment by instructional mode by race/ethnicity, socio-economic status, English learner status, and disability status.
  • Attendance rates by instructional mode by race/ethnicity, socio-economic status, English learner status, disability status, and housing status.
  • Frequency of in-person learning for students.
  • Average number of hours of synchronous instruction for students in remote instruction mode. And,
  • Student groups prioritized by schools for in-person instruction by selected school characteristics.
  • The need for more information on student learning is great — and the challenge is steep, according to experts and education advocates.

A recent poll of Michigan parents by the Education Trust-Midwest shows that nearly half reported receiving little or no information about whether their child has experienced learning loss or has fallen behind grade-level expectations as a result of learning disruptions during the pandemic. The the vast majority of all parents  also expressed concern about their child falling behind academically. And 85 percent said state leaders should have a plan to address learning loss and make sure students catch up.

Meanwhile, experts say school districts have received little guidance on next steps to address the gaps.

“Over the past year, 13,000 school districts had to construct their own COVID-19 response plans on their own with little to no state or federal guidance—which means that the federal government’s job now is more than just asking states to share their data,” said Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, President and CEO of the Data Quality campaign in a blog.

“The public needs to understand not just what’s happening inside the classroom, but also how the pandemic impacts people’s lives. To fully understand the impact of COVID-19 on schools and students, the federal government must seize this opportunity to invest once again in state and local data systems and the human capacity necessary to turn data into information,” she wrote, citing ways that Congress and the Biden administration should consider investing.

While a number of states, including Michigan, have asked the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver for students testing requirements and some critical public reporting, national civil rights advocates, business groups and other organizations have highlighted the need for data on student learning.

“We recognize that statewide assessments are only one measure of student learning, and assessments alone will not address systemic discrimination and inequity in our education system,” a recent letter by national civil rights advocates/organizations, including the Education Trust and other advocates noted. “But right now – when students who have historically been underserved are bearing the brunt of the impact from the pandemic – waiving assessments will only make it harder to identify and address one of the most inequitable school years in history. The data from summative assessments will shine a light on deep inequities and allow us to pave a way forward.”

The Education Trust-Midwest joined many Michigan organizations, including representatives of the Autism Alliance of Michigan, Michigan College Access Network, Ignite Social Media; Michigan College Access Network; 42 North Partners; Detroit Parent Network; YWCA Kalamazoo, Franklin Wright Settlements, DTE Energy, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, BFDI Educational Services, Strong Beginnings-Healthy Start, Michigan Achieves and Hope Network Michigan Education Corps., to oppose Michigan’s request for a waiver and promote the most successful assessment of student learning possible.

And on Wednesday, the Center for American Progress called on the U.S. Department of Education to refrain from issuing waivers of the Every Student Succeeds Act’s test requirements.

The Center noted that while it was understandable that testing was cancelled last school year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, the current moment necessitates other considerations.

“Stories in the media and reports on local assessment results show troubling data about the realities of remote schooling: Millions of students are not getting an opportunity to learn. Studies of local test results caution that millions of students who are especially vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19 are missing from the data,” said Khalilah Harris, acting vice president of K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress.

“Now more than ever, we need to understand how students are performing against the common metric of state academic standards so that we may understand what schools and educators need to enhance and enrich their learning,” Khalilah said.