The Intersection

Homeroom with Education Leaders: Equity in Accountability & Learning

June 3, 2020

As stated by Former United States Secretary of Education, and current President & CEO of the Education Trust, John B. King Jr., assessments and accountability play a critical role in ensuring educational equity throughout the country. Assessments and accountability, specifically in the context of school closures, was the focus of the third episode of The Hunt Institute’s Conversations with State Chiefs, a webinar series bringing policymakers, educators, and stakeholders together with state education agency (SEA) leaders to discuss the work being done at the state level to adjust to changes in the education landscape as a result of the current pandemic. In this episode, attendees heard from Secretary King, Commissioner Penny Schwinn of Tennessee, Commissioner Mike Morath of Texas, and Senior Chancellor Eric Hall of Florida about how to rethink accountability during the pandemic and how to ensure that all students are being measured equitably.

The first part of the episode focused heavily on the existing inequities seen in assessments and accountability, as well as how these inequities are being brought to the forefront in the wake of COVID-19. In his remarks, Secretary King emphasized the need to understand the context around assessment, see how students are progressing, and implement diagnostic assessments when schools reopen.

Secretary King pointed out that before COVID-19, several subgroups were rendered invisible as a result of systemic inequities pulling needed attention from their outcomes. Now with the outbreak of COVID-19, schools are paying more attention to how these students are being assessed. Additionally, Secretary King noted that while assessments and accountability play critical roles in ensuring educational equity, stakeholders in education must take a holistic approach to what school should look like now and upon return to a brick-and-mortar setting; specifically, he was referring to the need to have high-quality curricula in all districts, have strong professional development programs for all educators, and safe school environments for everyone involved in the school system.

Responding to Inequities in the Time of COVID-19

Secretary King’s points paved the way for discussion about the work being done by state chiefs to address assessments and accountability in this moment. Chancellor Eric Hall provided important context around Florida’s student population, as this context informs how the state approaches these questions. Florida, as stated by Chancellor Hall, is the third largest state, has a diverse population of three million students, has a robust virtual school system, and is no stranger to disaster preparation. Chancellor Hall noted that this context informs the state’s approach to assessments and accountability. While federally-mandated assessments have been cancelled for the 2019-2020 academic year, now is not the time to walk away from assessments and accountability, as these components are critical in the state’s mission to close the achievement gap.

Being informed by parental and stakeholder engagement has guided the work being done by state leaders, as stated by both Commissioners Morath and Schwinn. Commissioner Morath stressed the need to increase, monitor, and support parental engagement, as parents are witnessing student engagement and well-being first-hand in this period of distance learning. Commissioner Schwinn noted that Tennessee has been prioritizing stakeholder engagement, particularly on the local level, as the state department of education has been calling local superintendents several times weekly to understand the needs of each district. Student mental health is also being taken seriously in Tennessee, as the state has convened a Child Well-Being Task Force to address student well-being and evaluate wellness during this uncertain time.

State leaders are also worried about what has been termed the “COVID slide,” referring to how the changes in education resulting from COVID-19 will exacerbate the learning losses typically seen during a summer break. Secretary King, citing recent literature from the Northwest Educational Association, stated that students could lose half a year of progress in mathematics and up to a third of a year in progress for reading. Commissioner Morath discussed the need for SEAs to help districts obtain the tools necessary to get diagnostic information on their students, but gathering this information is not enough, as a plan of action must follow. He also noted that the Texas Education Agency is developing a free benchmark diagnostic that districts and families can opt into – this diagnostic will be a condensed version of a summative assessment and will not have any bearing on student standing. The assessment will simply be to gauge where students are and what academic areas have room for growth.

Moving Forward from Here: How to Build Equitable Accountability Standards for All

There was a focus on the opportunities for education that can come out of COVID-19. Chancellor Hall stated that he has been thinking about this a great deal, noting that learning can move forward even if school moves away from the traditional brick-and-mortar setting. Chancellor Hall also emphasized how COVID-19 has shed a light on subgroups we normally do not talk about, and those subgroups include students without internet and/or technological access outside the classroom. Addressing the digital divide has become a priority for state leaders; while states have done remarkable work in recent years to bring wireless internet to schools, the next step is to ensure internet access outside the classroom so all students can maximize their learning experiences from a distance.

Finally, there was discussion on addressing the long-term challenges that may emerge from the pandemic. As noted by Commissioner Schwinn, major research studies are being conducted in Tennessee to help stakeholders gather an understanding of what is happening throughout the state’s education landscape, as this will inform planning going forward in several areas, including educator preparation, resource deployment, and student engagement. These studies, as noted by Commissioner Schwinn, will look at early indicators informing that future work, such as work completion, resource availability by locale, and minutes of engagement between students and educators. Commissioner Morath and Secretary King stated the need to re-visit ESSA plans and push Congress to increase federal funding as states anticipate steep cuts in per-pupil funding.

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting education on a grand scale, and state leaders are working to understand how to respond in the short- and long-term. Keeping assessments and accountability at the core will be instrumental in preventing the widening of achievement gaps and working to ensure educational equity throughout The United States. How assessment and accountability systems will look going forward remains uncertain, but stakeholders understand that significant changes are likely to be made.

View the full episode here:

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