From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of January 25

From the Kitchen Tables of Jenn and Paige: What We’re Watching, Week of January 25

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.

Happy New Year! The first few weeks of 2021 have been tumultuous, especially for those of us in and around the nation’s capital (DQC’s home), but with the inauguration behind us, we are feeling a refreshed sense of focus in our work. It may be a new day in Washington, but policymakers and educators across the country are still struggling with the same COVID-19 related challenges. There are signs of movement, however, especially with proposed legislation in some states and with the new administration’s early actions on education.

Biden administration’s executive order. Last week, President Biden signed an executive order on education as part of the new administration’s COVID-19 response plan. A few provisions in particular have data implications, including one that directs federal officials to report on the disparate impacts of COVID-19 on different student populations. At the highest level, the data-related provisions in the executive order instruct federal leaders and agencies to collect and use data to understand the full impact of the pandemic on education. Some in the field are interpreting the executive order as a time-limited charge to collect new information about this year, but it also provides an important opportunity to deepen long-term investments in federal, state, and local data systems and the human capacity needed to credibly understand the impact of COVID on teaching and learning for years to come. Look out for more from us soon about the implications of this executive order and other federal actions.

Attendance continues to be a challenge. As The 74 reports, school districts are still seeing a major drop in attendance—both remote and in person—in part because many school systems have failed to create consistent rules for what “attendance” actually means during the pandemic. In some districts, attendance is counted by the hours a student spends receiving instruction that day; in others, it’s measured by whether the student completes daily tasks; and the variations go on from there. For one thing, districts measuring this information differently will present an important challenge to the Biden administration’s executive order, with its emphasis on collecting and reporting on data nationally. As for how school systems should balance high expectations around attendance with flexibility for students in difficult circumstances, The 74 urges districts to avoid punitive measures for low attendance and instead focus on how they can support students and understand and address the root causes of absenteeism. We agree! Schools and districts are collecting a wealth of information about student attendance and engagement, and the more they can use that information to help students stay on track, the better. Officials should also be extremely clear with parents about how they’re measuring attendance. This data is so important to supporting students, and people need to know just what the expectations are.

To test or not to test? The debate goes on about whether or not to assess student learning using standardized end-of-year tests this spring. We are on the record for supporting statewide spring assessments in 2021 as they create the best, most comparable data point to understand where all students in a state are in their learning. Now other voices are joining the chorus for spring testing, including the New York Times editorial board. In an opinion piece earlier this month, they recognize the importance of test data to illuminating reality, especially for historically marginalized students:

. . . [G]iven a shortage of testing data for Black, Hispanic and poor children, it could well be that these groups have fared worse in the pandemic than their white or more affluent peers. The country needs specific information on how these subgroups are doing so that it can allocate educational resources strategically.

Beyond that, parents need to know where their children stand after such a sustained period without much face-to-face instruction. Given these realities, the new education secretary . . . should resist calls to put off annual student testing.

This call to use data to support education equity for all students and to keep parents informed is one that we wholly agree with. We were also happy to see ExcelinEd lay out a reasoned case for spring 2021 testing in their brief, “To Test or Not to Test?,” which discusses four main functions of assessments that will be essential during the pandemic: gather information, target support, advance equity, and track progress. Through all of these arguments there’s a clear focus on shining a light on what’s actually happening with student learning right now. You can’t fix what you can’t see, period. And it’s hard to see how the Biden administration’s executive order can be effectively implemented without this kind of data to understand the full impact of COVID-19 on student learning. Assessment data is the only comparable data we have about student performance, and the value of a national data set hinges on that comparability.

Latest in state legislation. Many state legislatures have been in session this month, and we’re tracking proposed bills in various states. Here are just a few highlights of what we’re seeing:

  • New Mexico is considering the “Black Education Act,” a bill focused on improving education outcomes for Black students in particular from early childhood through the workforce. The bill includes reporting requirements to better understand how to serve Black students, including disaggregated data on student achievement, postsecondary enrollment, retention and completion, and data on the number of diverse university faculty. It’s a real development to see states considering innovative approaches to addressing longstanding education inequities.
  • South Carolina legislators have introduced a bill to establish a cross-agency workforce and education data oversight committee. Cross-agency data sharing and use is essential to states meeting their education and workforce goals, and we know that good governance is the key to ensuring that data sharing works the way it needs to across P–20W.
  • Vermont legislators are introducing a bill that would create an advisory council to analyze school discipline data to inform decisionmaking. The legislation focuses on increasing the quality and public transparency of the data and includes research regarding the disparities in disciplinary incidents between different student groups and their negative impact on learning.