Thursday, March 23, 2023
March 23, 2023

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Unraveling needs of Washington students may take more tests and screenings


In a lot of ways, the latest round of Washington’s newly released test score data is a starting point. At least that’s how Aira Jackson, director of assessment and instructional improvement at Seattle Public Schools, sees it.

“It provides us a snapshot that’s kind of universal,” she said. “We’re all kind of just taking a breath right now and thinking about what we’re seeing.”

Spring assessment data released this month paints a complex picture: Scores dropped during the pandemic, and gaps widened between student groups. But the recently unveiled data shows a slight — though still uneven — uptick compared to test scores from fall of last year.

To track how the academic recovery is playing out, the amount of information schools are collecting about students is on a much more dramatic upswing. In the coming weeks, many Seattle students will participate in a districtwide assessment to give educators a better sense of where they are now. The spring assessment happened months ago.

It’s part of the district’s larger data strategy — Jackson says those results will be “triangulated” with other scores, including from the state-required Smarter Balanced Assessments and those conducted on the individual classroom level, and that the newly planned districtwide test will offer a more timely snapshot of where students are at.

“We wanted one that would be concise … give us those results and also be informative for educators and also be informative for families,” she said.

Numerous studies and research conducted on the pandemic’s impact have made clear that the ripple effects of COVID-19 came down unevenly across grade levels, subject area and student groups. But experts and educators analyzing that data point out the need to rethink what a true “recovery” could or should look like — and that traditional assessment tools don’t tell the whole story.

A recent report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization based at Arizona State University, breaks down what dozens of researchers across the country have found so far about the pandemic’s effects on students.

It paints a dire picture.

According to research from Harvard University, high-income schools lost roughly 13 weeks — about three months — of academic instruction during the 2020-21 school year, compared to 22 weeks — about five months — in high-poverty schools.

The CRPE report says last school year didn’t just fail to make up for that lost time — some students continued to fall further behind. An analysis cited in the report shows literacy skills among second graders, especially among Black and Hispanic students, aren’t recovering at the same pace as other grades.

The mental health needs of students also grew more intense as disruptions continued — the report says the rate of suspected suicide attempts among teen girls grew by 51% in just one year during the pandemic.

While communities have leveraged millions in pandemic relief dollars to get kids back on track by offering more mental health services or community-based tutoring and mentoring, there’s still not enough evidence that schools are “meeting the moment,” said Robin Lake, director of CRPE.

“We see that happening but it’s too far and few between,” she said. “The urge to return to normalcy is very strong, understandably — we want things to feel regular and normal … but if we do that, kids will pay the price.”

Locally, schools are deploying new curriculum alongside new surveys and testing strategies in order to capture what progress looks like as the school year unfolds. They’re still evaluating what’s working — or not — as students and staff re-acclimate to pre-pandemic era school routines that look and feel more familiar.

The pandemic also renewed the sense of urgency for schools to gather more detailed information about students’ social and emotional wellness in order to support students with widely different life experiences. Collecting that type of data isn’t as straightforward as administering, say, a math test — but Jackson says it’s more relevant now than ever.

“In the past, we got really locked into quantitative measures, they’re easy, they’re transferable,” Jackson said. “Not all data and not all really important information can be assigned a number or put in a spreadsheet.”

That sentiment is shared by schools across the region. Northshore School District is developing a social and emotional screener tool to put into use later this year. The district has been focused on how to ensure it’s accessible technologically and across languages — and that families from different cultural backgrounds understand the intent behind it, said Tracy Meloy, Northshore’s chief leadership and strategy officer.

Despite the overwhelming losses research has revealed, Lake and others say schools must also acknowledge opportunities students were able to access during the pandemic, like learning pods and other resources from local immigrant advocacy groups and tribes in Washington. Those opportunities can help inform the path forward.

“All over the state, I heard about communities really stepping up during the pandemic and providing something important and unique,” Lake said. “That’s something I hope that we can play with and understand how we can maintain those connections to community that were so strong during that period.”

Filiberto Barajas-López, director of Indigenous Education Initiatives at the University of Washington’s College of Education, says there likely isn’t enough information being collected by schools to understand the full context of students’ pandemic experiences; the framing of the pandemic’s impact on students as “learning loss” doesn’t acknowledge gains they might have made culturally or socially with their families and in their communities.

“I don’t necessarily believe we should just look at that, because that also assumes what was happening before has produced great results, but we know it hasn’t,” he said.

He says it’s essential for schools to engage with communities in order to better recognize, value and support the unexpected but positive experiences students had during the pandemic.

“As we return back to schools, are we OK returning to what was already existing and was producing many of these inequities, or is this a moment and an opportunity to re-imagine different ways of doing what we’ve been doing?” he said.

Overall, the task before educators is a monumental one, but school systems aren’t doing the work alone.

In South Seattle, East African Community Services plans to spend more time inside school buildings this year, in addition to offering an after-school program for students it serves. Kat Price, the group’s education program manager, said the organization is planning mentoring, guest speakers and college prep support for middle and high school students during study periods or during lunch.

Meloy says Northshore is working with the city of Kenmore after officials reached out to put pandemic relief funding to work in their community.

And ideally, the data being collected by schools now will give them even more reason to feel optimistic that those efforts can work — or point them in a new direction to something that does.