Blog series – Back to school assessment plan

Part 8: Keep moving forward: part eight of an assessment plan for back-to-school 2020

This is the eighth and final in a series of blogs outlining an assessment plan for back-to-school 2020 after the coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to close their buildings and administer teaching remotely instead.

Most people are familiar with Nike’s long-running “Just do it” marketing campaign. Shortly before this wildly successful campaign launched, Nike ran a far less famous — and shorter-lived — one. That earlier campaign, however, provided a slogan that we have used for years when discussing education: “There is no finish line.” This is true for adults as much as pupils — we never stop learning.

Why change is the only constant

Over time, many of us have come to understand that “There is no finish line” is an enduring truth about our profession. It is a mantle we take on when we become educators. Our finish lines are typically drawn by time rather than by meeting every predetermined outcome. We teach right up to the last minute of the class, the last moment before the test, and the last lesson before study leave in order to give our students every skill, every piece of knowledge and every advantage possible.

There’s also a clear benefit of not having a finish line: it gives us the opportunity every school year to reinvent. Our summers have typically been a time of rejuvenation and reflection about how to improve student outcomes in the new year by refining our craft, our pedagogy and our commitment. This year, that challenge is even more apparent — and even more necessary.

COVID-19 has brought unforeseen disruptions to education and a heightened concern about the 2020–2021 academic year. Will students have fallen behind? Will there be wider performance gaps than we’ve seen before? No one knows the answers to these questions yet. But, as we explained in the first of this blog series, no teacher has ever started the school year with every student performing just as expected.

Yes, there will likely be a lot of variance in student performance this autumn, but no teacher has ever taught a class where every learner is at precisely the same level. We have ways to address this as well. But, having said that, the global pandemic and this spring’s school closures have precipitated some changes— and have raised some important questions that require our consideration.

Benchmarks in the COVID-19 era

First and foremost, educators are asking: should we keep the same benchmarks we used last year? Or should we make adjustments, in order to account for COVID-related learning loss?

Star Assessments offer several benchmark options to choose from: including default percentile-based benchmarks, benchmarks tied to school expectations, for meeting KS2 expectations, and benchmarks defined by your trust.

Even though the 2019–2020 school year was disrupted and lower levels of student performance are predicted, we highly discourage the changing of benchmarks for 2020–2021. While keeping existing benchmarks in place may result in higher numbers of students below your proficiency targets, it is best not to look at data through the rose-coloured glasses that lowered benchmarks would offer. Leadership guru John Kotter (1996) notes that “without a sense of urgency, people won’t give that extra effort which is often essential.”

The lowering of a benchmark can quickly lower the sense of urgency. But we should feel great urgency about addressing any unfinished learning and the ‘COVID-19 slide.’ Plus, technically, there has been no change to performance expectations in light of the pandemic, so we should still have the same expected levels of performance for our students.

Promoting equity and access

Perhaps the most profound change that we’ll face in the new school year is the manner in which we deliver services — as we discussed in part two of this series. Many families depend on the custodial assistance that schools provide, because their jobs do not permit or allow them to work from home. And while many trusts and schools will attempt to conduct a ‘normal’ school year — i.e. with students physically present in school buildings — this may not always be possible. Some students and staff members have health conditions that make returning to school impossible.

Last term, the majority of learning was delivered remotely, with some key students staying at school and certain year groups returning for the last few weeks. Most schools noticed that this remote instruction was not received uniformly: in some households, each individual has a personal device for online access; in other homes, everyone might share a single device, or there might not be any at all. Similarly, access to a reliable internet connection varies greatly across households — some might have no internet connection at all.

All of this creates an entirely new need for data disaggregation:  it will be useful to disaggregate student data based where they’re learning, access to technology, and connectivity. This could be accomplished in the Renaissance platform by using the user-defined characteristics to indicate students’ access to a device and connectivity at home. The process might be a bit labour-intensive, but the insights provided will be worth the effort in terms of monitoring student performance in relation to mode of delivery — and understanding the impact of access (and lack of access) on student outcomes.

Resources to move learning forward

As we reach the end of this blog series, we should consider what has changed and what hasn’t. The primary change, as mentioned above, is the mode(s) in which you’re likely to deliver instruction.

But in terms of what hasn’t changed, we’ll still have students who are performing below benchmark and we’ll still encounter gaps in student learning. We’ll still have the need for valid and reliable interim assessments (as discussed in part three of this series) and for quality formative assessment tools (as discussed in part six of this series). You’ll still be able to rely on Star Assessments for actionable insights on what your students know, what they’re ready to learn next and which skills are absolutely essential for moving learning forward.

And, of course, there still won’t be a finish line.

Something positive

In the new school year, we’ll continue to run the race, but we may also see the start of something new. Wouldn’t it be great to see more people coming out to support educators?

After years of being weighed down by high-stakes accountability requirements and increasing societal pressures, with the numbers of teachers exiting the profession on the rise, finally COVID-19 has caused many families to re-think the value of schools. After having their children at home for months, suddenly they’ve discovered that teaching is much harder than they thought! Having a safe place for children to go for a major portion of the day while parents are work was, unsurprisingly, profoundly missed.

Our race without a finish line continues, but more people are cheering us on, with a new-found appreciation of our roles.

As educators, our challenge — and our opportunity — in the new school year is to use this increased support, along with our training, our technology and our commitment to education, to overcome any obstacle in order to move learning forward.

Follow us on social media and tell us if you have enjoyed reading this series — we’d love to know what you think.