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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public Schools, like most districts, struggles to measure achievement during pandemic

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Sept. 24, 2019.   (JESSE TINSLEY)

COVID-19 has placed many obstacles in the path of students’ academic success.

The latest problem: How to measure it.

During a meeting last week, senior staff and board members in Spokane Public Schools discussed that conundrum before acknowledging that in the era of the coronavirus, the usual metrics don’t apply.

Disrupted by the pandemic, state and national standardized tests have been delayed or canceled.

The latest setback came Wednesday when the U.S. Department of Education announced that the National Assessment of Educational Progress for mathematics and reading, often called “the nation’s report card,” would be canceled this year in the face of surging COVID cases.

That’s right: America’s children just got an incomplete. But that doesn’t mean educators are giving up.

Like most districts, Spokane is struggling to get a handle on how much its 31,000 students are learning.

It didn’t help that because of the statewide shutdown last spring, the state superintendent’s office canceled this year’s Smarter Balanced Assessment.

The test originally was scheduled in the spring of 2020.

“It’s a very unique year for us,” Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard said. “Many of our academic performance results didn’t happen.”

The district was able to celebrate a record-high graduation rate of 89.2% even as students retreated to distance learning for the last three months of the school year.

“That was something to celebrate,” Swinyard said. “One of the key focuses was doing everything to support school seniors getting to the finish line and finishing strong.”

Everyone else regrouped during a summer of fluctuating COVID-19 numbers. When it became clear that the district would begin the year with distance learning only, administrators felt the pieces were in place.

The district said it’s been working hard to maximize and measure student participation through student logins and “multiple data points to measure engagement,” Swinyard said.

However, he acknowledged that remote learning presents more problems in reaching all students.

“Teachers are working hard to call home to reach out and making personal connections,” Swinyard said. “We know that sending emails is having a lesser impact than making a phone call and reaching out to parents.”

However, board members noted that teachers have their hands full; some are engaged in both distance and in-person learning.

Board member Aryn Ziehnert said that after meeting with teachers, “some of the concern is teachers having this additional stress of worrying about meeting (achievement) targets.”

For now, the district will rely on current metrics of engagement while trying to identify new ones.

According to documents shared at the meeting, the district also plans to “implement strategies that promote 80-100% of students regularly engaging in distance learning during the 2020-2021 school year.”

That has been an elusive target at many schools, particularly those located in low-income neighborhoods.

Nationally, the delay in NAEP testing means educators will lose what might have been the only opportunity to gather comparable state-by-state information on the extent of learning loss in math and reading after months of school closures and other disruptions.

Given to representative samples of students in all 50 states since the 1970s, the NAEP was scheduled to begin in early 2021.

Federal officials pointed to many reasons for postponing NAEP. One was that the patchwork quilt of schools offering in-person, hybrid, or all-remote learning threatened to skew the sample of students to the point where the data might not have been usable.

“Too many students are receiving their education through distance learning or are physically attending schools in locations where outside visitors to the schools are being kept at a minimum due to COVID levels,” said James Woodworth, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

The other reason was to ensure safety of testing proctors and the students taking the the exams, which are given on shared laptops and other equipment.

Other education groups, while disappointed, felt the agency made the right call.

“I recognize this was not an easy decision, but I believe it is the right one based on what we know today about this virus and its impact on schools,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents the 50 state superintendents.

Federal officials had earlier acknowledged potential problems and costs of moving forward and were trying to balance that against NAEP’s important role as a national yardstick.

At a July 31 meeting, the panel that sets policy for NAEP approved a resolution to move forward with the tests.

Then the surge came, and with it, more districts began moving back into all-remote learning.

Nevertheless, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has pushed for states to continue annual assessments by next spring.

But only NAEP produces comparable state-to-state results. States’ own exams supply some information, but those tests measure different content standards across states, and they are set at differing levels of difficulty.

And while the pandemic has raged for months, the national picture of learning loss is still fuzzy and incomplete.

Emerging data from some commonly administered “benchmark” exams – given by districts several times a year to measure progress trends – suggest declines.

However, the breakdown by different states or regions remains unclear.