Students Are Slipping Through the Cracks of Special Education. Schools Must Do Better.

This is the story of a student who got lost in the system. Jason* was a 10th grader affected by the pandemic like many other students and their families. He came to school one day and explained to his teacher that his mother had lost her job at a day care due to declining enrollment. … Read more

Why Assessments Are Still Useful — and Accurate — in a Pandemic Year

As most school systems have learned by now, assessing learning in a pandemic comes with all sorts of challenges, including but not limited to how (and where) to assess students and whether the data being gathered is even accurate. As assessment and curriculum leaders for two different districts, we’re still discovering the answers. But what … Read more

Why Assessments Are Still Useful — and Accurate — in a Pandemic Year

As most school systems have learned by now, assessing learning in a pandemic comes with all sorts of challenges, including but not limited to how (and where) to assess students and whether the data being gathered is even accurate. As assessment and curriculum leaders for two different districts, we’re still discovering the answers. But what … Read more

College Board Changes AP Exams Again to Accommodate Pandemic-Era Testing

Since the Advanced Placement (AP) program began in the 1950s, tens of millions of students have taken their exams in school, with paper and pencil, over the course of several hours. That format held for decades, but ultimately could not withstand the challenges posed by a global pandemic. Last spring, the College Board, which oversees … Read more

How Today’s Unique Education Challenges May Improve Tomorrow’s Assessments

They come from different education and career backgrounds, and they work in distant divisions at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But after only a few minutes of conversation, it’s abundantly clear that Kyra Donovan and Dr. Julie Miles share a passion for learning and a strong conviction that assessment is essential to creating the best educational outcomes for students of all abilities. Assessments have long played a central role in traditional education, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for smarter, faster and more seamless options.Kyra Donovan, an Associate Partner at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), comes to the table with more than 30 years of experience in public education. She has served as a classroom teacher, principal and central office administrator. During that time, she came to see the importance of having a roadmap for curriculum and assessments so that teachers and administrators had common language and benchmarks for success. At ICLE, Donovan works closely with teachers and administrators to help them implement and interpret assessments in the classroom.Dr. Julie Miles decided that she could better serve the educational world from outside of the classroom. She pursued a PhD in Educational Research, Measurement and Evaluation. Today, she is the Senior Vice President of Learning Sciences, Measurement and Data Analytics at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She leads four separate teams that focus on the sciences of learning, assessment design and creation, psychometric (measurement) research and accessibility of program content and assessments. In her 20 years in the field of assessment, Miles has worked on many of the widely-used assessment tools in the nation, including PARCC and many large-scale state summative assessments and growth measures.An Assessment OverviewWhen it comes to assessment, HMH provides a spectrum of tools:Recommended resources from HMH

Diagnostic: tools that help determine student needs so additional supports or interventions can be put in place

Formative: more informal check-ins—quizzes, questions from the front of the room, or even chats with students—that assess how students are absorbing material and allow teachers to adjust lessons on the fly

Summative: the more comprehensive tools used to measure what a student has learned at the end of a school term, such as exams and final projects

Benchmark/Interim: a type of formative assessment given throughout the year that tracks how students are progressing in relation to curriculum standards/benchmarks

Growth Measurements: tools to track students’ growth over time—typically three times a year (beginning, middle, end)—to determine whether they are progressing
Together, these tools help educators ensure that they are meeting curriculum standards effectively and in ways that are accessible for all of their students.Miles explains that how you’re going to use the information collected informs which tool(s) would be best: “Kyra uses the words ‘fit for purpose’ because each type of assessment does have a purpose. It depends on the decisions that you’re trying to support.”Kyra DonovanPurposeful AssessmentAt its core, assessment is about collecting, interpreting and using data. Donovan and Miles both emphasize purpose as a key starting point. For Donovan, it comes down to the why: “School districts have a lot of data, typically, from a lot of different places. We are data-rich, but there are many times when you ask leaders or teachers, ‘So why are you doing this assessment? What are you going to do with it?’ They look at you and say, ‘I don’t know. We’ve always done it.’ The purpose of assessment is to figure out what insights you can gather and then take action based on the results. They monitor whether students are learning or not. Because I could be the best teacher, I may have this stellar lesson, but if my students aren’t learning the content or the standard I’m teaching, it really doesn’t matter.”Miles agrees but brings her own perspective to using the data: “Customers often don’t know how to convert the assessments into information and then convert that information into insights and action. And that is the part of my job that I love. I love sitting down with data in front of the customer and showing them what it means. Not to me, but what does it mean to you, to your students, to your teachers and to your classroom? Because that’s why I build assessments. I don’t build them to fill time. I build them to help optimize teaching and learning; that’s my team’s mission statement. If they look at me and say, ‘Oh, this doesn’t help me at all,’ I respond, ‘Okay, but what can I do that will?’ I start from scratch again.”While the two have slightly different approaches, their objective is the same: quality educational experiences. Ongoing assessments help teachers ensure that their lessons are tied to standards and, most importantly, that they are also effective in achieving the intended student outcomes. Donovan drives this point home, “You cannot wait until you get to the summative assessment and say, ‘Oh, shoot.’ A kid’s only a third grader—or a freshman—one time. You’ve got to do everything you can.”Dr. Julie MilesEducation and Assessment in the Age of COVID-19Assessments have long played a central role in traditional education, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for smarter, faster and more seamless options. Both Miles and Donovan talk of the challenges faced by entire school communities as instructional time has been lost or compromised, students have fallen behind in benchmarks, social-emotional well-being has taken a front seat, and educators are coping with ever-changing classroom environments. There are also growing inequities for students of color, those with different learning needs and those in lower socio-economic brackets. The pressure is on to meet their needs before it’s too late.“We know that teachers are not going to have the same amount of time,” Donovan explains. “And we also know that kids are going to come back with gaps we’ve probably never seen before. We want teachers to teach the grade-level content, but they cannot go back and teach everything that a student may have missed. We have to figure out how to have more of a vertical alignment, so to speak, between grade levels around what standards are most critical.”This line of thinking led ICLE and HMH to develop a resource called Bridge and Grow Pathways, a roadmap to help teachers prioritize learning outcomes. The aim is to focus on essential areas of learning, as well as tap into outcomes that may have been compromised the previous year. If students are struggling in an area, Bridge and Grow can help teachers identify the standards they may have missed.Beyond that, Miles and her team have been hard at work making assessments easier and faster for teachers. One example is the computer-adaptive HMH Growth Measure tool. Miles says that it takes only 75 percent (or even 50 percent) of the time that other growth measures and diagnostics take, allowing teachers to get essential information without sacrificing precious instructional time.The Future of AssessmentsAlthough the pandemic has disrupted learning and assessment for a time, Miles keeps her eyes on the future. And it’s mind-bending stuff. While many educators are still catching up with new platforms and technology, Miles is talking about stealth assessments, shifting from textbook-based learning and using machine learning (AI) to support teachers’ decision-making on what comes next for each specific student or how to group students for differentiation. Although the pandemic has disrupted learning and assessment for a time, Miles keeps her eyes on the future.In reference to the Bridge and Grow platform, she says, “Those core learning objectives are based on fundamental skills that are required in order for a student to advance and matriculate across the grades from kindergarten to high school. My team has created an underlying learning progression—we call it a learning spine—and I’m connecting thousands of skills to each other so that every single piece of content that we produce at HMH can be tagged to a very specific skill or a set of skills. As a student interacts with a piece of content, I can track whether or not they have mastered that skill.”The end goal is to develop integrated assessments that capture a student’s learning and growth without the stress or time requirements of formal tests. Not only that, but this type of system can create a holistic view of students and their entire learning journey so they can access custom experiences to meet individual needs. Miles sums this up with a gleeful exclamation that reveals her enthusiasm for this field of work, “It’s fun. It’s super sophisticated. It is no longer just writing multiple choice test questions. It is definitely not that!”

Learning Loss Is Everywhere. But How Do the Reports Compare?

Learning loss is everywhere—and so are reports detailing the setbacks. As some schools reopen, edtech product use declines. And “non-traditional” students appear more okay with remote online learning than their “traditional” peers. All in this Edtech Reports Recap. Learning Loss in Math Exceeds Reading By Any MeasureLet’s get this out of the way up front: there is no shortage of surveys, analyses and other reports on pandemic learning loss among K-12 students who have suffered shuttered schools and unplanned days of remote online instruction. What differs is how those reports measure, how many are measured and what exactly they found.Take Illuminate Education. In November, it released a brief on math and reading losses in grades K-8. Its measurement gathered up “more than one million” fall screenings given using its FastBridge adaptive assessments going back to fall 2016. It then compared annual growth from fall 2019 to fall 2020 to average annual fall-to-fall growth rates in previous years.Source: Illuminate EducationIlluminate found what it called statistically significant declines in reading in several grades, leading to “modest” reading losses across grades K-8. In mathematics, declines in achievement were “substantial” in grades 5-8. What does that mean? Reading losses varied from one to three months depending on grade, but math losses in grades 5-8 were the largest, accounting for three to four months of progress. Renaissance Learning, maker of the Star Early Literacy, Star Reading and Star Math assessments, released its own analysis in November shortly after Illuminate’s report. It covered reading and math in grades 1-8. But its comparison was both more constrained in time—comparing results of students who took assessments in fall 2019 and fall 2020—as well as more expansive in absolute numbers, citing “5.3 million assessments” from 50 states and the District of Columbia.Source: Renaissance LearningOverall trends, though, were similar. Math achievement and growth was hit harder than reading, with the negative effects characterized as “small” for reading and “moderate” for math. Renaissance looked at learning loss in terms of weeks behind, not months. For reading, the most behind were students in grades 4-7, needing four to seven weeks of instruction to catch up. In math, grades 5-6 were hardest hit at more than 12 weeks behind beginning-of-year expectations.Perhaps the most widely reported of the edtech industry’s learning loss reports came from nonprofit NWEA early this month. Its study covered fewer grades but a lot of students, nearly 4.4 million in grades 3-8 across more than 8,000 U.S. schools who took NWEA’s MAP Growth in fall 2020, with a comparison of the results to fall 2019.Source: NWEANWEA, too, found comparative student achievement in math was worse than in reading. But it might be the most optimistic of the three studies for reading, noting “students in grades 3-8 performed similarly” to same-grade students the previous fall. However, unlike Illuminate and Renaissance, NWEA didn’t estimate weeks or months of learning loss.Some organizations, like McKinsey and Company, have done a meta-analysis of various reports. (McKinsey’s includes a study based on Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready assessment data.) Individual studies and other syntheses of findings also go into detail on subgroups and have found troubling and disparate impacts on students of color, students from lower-income families, or those in other underserved groups. But all the conclusions seem to agree that K-8 student math achievement took a body blow far worse than that of reading. And they appear to acknowledge a common limitation of these reports: that the data comes largely from those students who were actually available to take an assessment in fall 2020—likely delivered online as part of remote instruction—so performance could be compared to fall 2019. As the authors of the NWEA study put it when sharing concerns about the “missing” students in the data, “students may have opted out of testing because they lack reliable technology or because they have disengaged from school due to economic, health, or other factors.” That, in itself, is a learning loss.Inequity Back to … Normal?LearnPlatform has extended its usage research for more than 8,000 edtech products through the pandemic. It’s now found that product use declined in October from a 2020 peak in September in all schools regardless of family income. The company’s data comes from tracking daily product use by 2.5 million students and teachers in 17 states.Source: LearnPlatformThere still were usage gaps between the higher family income districts (defined as those with less than 25% free or reduced-price lunch eligible students) and the lower-income districts, even though that gap narrowed. Districts serving more affluent families saw a steeper drop in product use throughout October, while use “declined only slightly” in lower-income districts—a gap LearnPlatform says “appears to be trending back to pre-COVID levels after significant widening immediately after school closures.” Unstated by LearnPlatform, but a possible contributing factor? Anecdotal news stories that more-affluent parents were more likely to send their students back to in-person classes where schools reopened rather than keep them home for continued remote learning.Bucking Tradition in Distance LearningGet older, and online learning gets better. That’s one tech-related conclusion that could be drawn from a more general but thorough report titled, “The Pandemic’s Impact on Higher Education Marketing in 2020 and Beyond.” Pulled together by higher ed marketing and ad agency LaneTerralever (clearly not a disinterested party), the survey questioned 528 current and prospective students across the U.S. in September, ages 18 and older. One interesting nugget: non-traditional students, ages 26-40, are somewhat more okay with distance learning than “traditional” students, ages 18-25. The survey finds 47 percent of non-traditional students agree that “distance learning is extremely effective,” compared to 35 percent of traditional students. That gives schools what the agency says is “an opportunity to position their distance learning properly.”Source: LaneTerraleverThe report also tucks in an insight about “microlearning platforms” that students have considered during the pandemic. Topping the list is LinkedIn Learning, at 35 percent, followed by Khan Academy, at 34 percent. LaneTerralever notes: “While in the short term they might not post a direct threat to 4-year programs, they in many ways can compete for students seeking certificates or other continued education.”