Can we land the COVID-19 assessment plane?

Can we land the COVID-19 assessment plane?

By Dale Chu

The Center for Assessment just published a curious piece suggesting that the current conversation regarding how to measure the covid slide come this fall is a fool’s errand. The author opens by creating a straw man in the form of a composite question from school and district officials:

What assessment do you recommend we administer when students return from remote learning in fall 2020? It has to be commercially available, quick and easy to give, identify student knowledge and skill gaps, provide instructionally useful information for teachers, and monitor student progress along the way. Oh, and it needs to be accessible for all students, all grade levels, and all content areas.

She quickly shoots the straw man down, quipping that it’s analogous to a “quest for the holy grail,” and that educators would be better off reading The DaVinci Code (a best-selling mystery thriller novel) instead. The author then segues into her thesis: Rather than searching for a mythical assessment chalice a la Indiana Jones, time would be better spent if we put shoulder to the wheel in order to improve assessment literacy among America’s teachers. Doing so would involve training them up on a series of six “learning modules” with topics like “The Basics of Differentiated Instruction” and “Accelerated Learning Approaches and Methods.”

Where to begin? For starters, there are two Brobdingnagian holes in the author’s argument.

First, I haven’t heard anyone argue that dealing with the disruptions caused by the pandemic requires a perfect assessment solution. In fact, states are just beginning to contemplate how to measure the projected learning loss (see Texas), but it remains unclear whether there will be a coordinated approach within states or whether it will be laissez-faire. (It seems all but certain that the feds will sit this one out). The very real concern right now isn’t whether districts are wasting time chasing perfection, but whether they have the tools and supports necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff of what’s already out there. As I’ve previously written, the pressing question is one of assessment quality.

Second, assessment literacy is all well and good, and plenty of ink has been spilled to underscore its merits. But let’s get real. With north of 3 million teachers in this country, the notion that we can upskill all of them on how to use, select, design, and interpret classroom assessments (with less than four months to go before the new school year!) strikes me as the real quixotic endeavor, to say nothing of the fact that this would be incredibly hard to do outside of the pressures and constraints being presented by today’s extraordinary circumstances.

No, when it comes to measuring the drag on student performance caused by COVID-19, our goal is not to, as the author puts it, “solve all educational ills.” That would be hard enough to do absent a crisis—and beyond the reach of any assessment. Instead, we need to be pragmatic and to focus on getting high quality tools into the hands of as many educators as possible.

In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there’s a scene when the main character and his father take a plane from a zeppelin and get pursued by Nazi fighter pilots. Jones’ dad tells Indy, “I didn’t know you could fly a plane.” To which Indy replies, “Fly, yes. Land, no.” At a moment when the only thing we can be certain about is uncertainty, measuring student learning loss is one of too many topics where folks are flying all over the place with nary a runway in sight. While I’m encouraged to hear that the Center for Assessment, among others, is already hard at work on landing this plane, let’s try not to get distracted from the urgent task at hand.

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