Access, Communications, Transparency

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of August 10

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of August 10

As we all try to understand our rapidly evolving education environment during the COVID-19 crisis and the uncertainty that surrounds it, the Data Quality Campaign is working to elevate what’s happening – whether it’s concrete examples of what’s working in states and districts, ideas and proposals from the field, or things our organization and others are exploring. To accomplish this, we’re bringing you our thoughts on the most salient conversations happening in the last week on navigating education during the pandemic and future recovery efforts.

We’re writing this column together to combine our perspectives: Jenn brings years of experience in the classroom and in education leadership at the district and federal levels, while Paige’s expertise comes from more than a decade working on state and federal education data policy and issues. Check back weekly for our roundup of noteworthy thinking on education data and policy.

It’s Paige writing solo this week. Jenn is on vacation.

It’s encouraging to see that some states are leveraging the power of their existing longitudinal data systems (SLDS) to inform recovery efforts. In Minnesota, the early childhood SLDS was enhanced with a comprehensive services map to help emergency and essential workers identify available child care providers. In Michigan, linking data between the state education agency and the state’s Department of Health and Human Services enabled the state to distribute pandemic electronic benefit transfer (P-EBT) cards to families of students in need of emergency food during the pandemic. And Tennessee used P–20 data to identify those who could have access to what they called CARES EBT. These states are using existing data, linked across agencies, to ensure their communities are getting the resources they need—a clear signal of the value of state data as a tool for local recovery efforts.

Earlier this summer, we highlighted opportunities for state leaders to use federal funds (from new and existing programs) to build out the data indicators and supports they need for COVID-19 response and recovery. But a few months later, we’re hearing from state partners that taking advantage of this federal funding may be easier said than done. While the federal government has made funds available that could be used for data infrastructure and use, many states have been unable to spend those dollars because of state-level budget considerations (e.g., freezes or slowed-down distribution of funds). Without efficient access to state dollars, education leaders can’t move quickly to address their priorities. State leaders should take stock of any cascading budget contingencies that may be preventing the release of state funds needed to take advantage of federal funding opportunities.

Some states are taking legislative action for recovery. The Michigan House of Representatives recently passed HB 5193, which would require districts to administer benchmark assessments to evaluate students’ reading and math proficiency and report student-level data to the Department of Education and to parents. The data must include an analysis of the specific student groups most impacted by school closures. The bill specifies that the Michigan Department of Education would use this data to report to the legislature on the number of students in each district who are significantly behind grade level and may also be used to measure growth. State and district leaders cannot make decisions to support recovery without data. This legislation is noteworthy because it would create a uniform mechanism for collecting data on student proficiency and progress before the end of next school year; comparable data is critical to recovery efforts.

The Nebraska legislature has sent LB 1160, which would formally require the Department of Labor to share data “throughout the prekindergarten to postsecondary education to workforce continuum,” to the Governor. The bill specifies that this system allow for many uses including providing workforce data to postsecondary institutions and guiding students to successful pathways. While the bill lacks guidance on data governance, it does pave the way for Nebraska’s data system to be expanded in the future by requiring a 2021 report to the legislature on additional needs. Ensuring that early education, K–12, postsecondary and workforce data are linked will allow Nebraska’s leaders to understand high-level trends and identify best practices at work – an important step in recovery. But without strong provisions for the governance of this data, its sustainability throughout leadership turnover and its ability to deliver data with equity at the center is in jeopardy.

The future of assessments. DQC recently joined 18 organizations to send a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The signing organizations urge the U.S. Department of Education to refrain from issuing waivers to states anytime soon from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirement for administering statewide English Language Arts and math assessments for the 2020-2021 school year. State and local leaders face the difficult task of preparing schools to educate students during the coming school year as the COVID-19 crisis continues. There’s no doubt that administering statewide summative assessments will be a significant challenge in this uncertain environment—but cancelling these assessments risks the loss of critical information that would highlight opportunity gaps and help policymakers celebrate and learn from schools that are helping students through this crisis.

The pandemic has only underscored the value of collecting and reporting on a standard measure of student performance. But leaders also need standard information about other factors—like attendance and engagement. In a recent commentary in The 74, FutureEd’s Phyllis Jordan and Attendance Works’ Hedy Chang discuss that, in an online learning environment, schools should be paying attention to more than just attendance. As they note, attendance can mean just logging in to the online platform, but it’s just as important for leaders to understand how and when students are participating in online learning. Jordan and Chang recommend consistent rules for tracking attendance and cite the Attendance Works framework that includes working contact information for a student and family, connectivity with the internet, relationships with teachers and participation in classes or schoolwork. Understanding and addressing the underlying issues that prevent students from participating in school during the pandemic (like lack of access to high-speed internet) is crucial. Without this information, school and district leaders can’t begin to formulate appropriate responses and interventions. To support students through recovery, leaders must have data to make decisions. On a related personal note, I learned last night that my sons’ school will not only be taking daily attendance but will also record attendance class by class every day through a variety of methods; I’m really interested to see how that goes!