As America’s schools reopen this fall, most are returning at least partially–if not fully–virtual. While policymakers, health experts, parents, and educators continue to debate the right course of action, one thing is for certain: back-to-school is here. As students log into their classrooms, another question arises – what has been the impact on student learning since the COVID-19 pandemic began?
This past April, NWEA’s own researchers provided projections of COVID-19-related learning loss based on typical summer learning loss, as well as historical studies on school disruptions like those due to a natural disaster. Based on these projections, the estimated impact on learning was significant – especially in math.
What these projections didn’t include, however, was any positive mitigation efforts like remote learning or tutoring, the variability in student access to high speed internet or distance learning capable devices, or instruction provided at home by parents/caregivers.
This means students returning to school in the fall will almost certainly have greater variances in academic skills and knowledge than in a normal, non-pandemic year. Peters, Rambo-Hernandez, Makel, Mathews, and Plucker recently examined classroom academic skills for a typical fifth grade class and found that a teacher could see up to seven grade levels of skills represented in one classroom. They estimated that the pandemic will only exacerbate these variances. Teachers must be prepared to expect students who fell much further behind since March, as well as students who may have accelerated and gained learning.
One option for understanding the true impact of the COVID-19 school shutdowns is through assessing students. This will give teachers and educational leaders reliable, high-quality data that provides insights on where students are, identifies learning gaps, helps teachers set meaningful goals, and informs instruction so it is targeted to the individual needs of each student. Having high-quality assessment data may be even more important in a remote learning environment in which teachers don’t have those daily conversations and check-ins with their students and can’t use their in-person formative assessment skills to identify where students are in their learning
But for the many districts that are operating online for all or part of this school year, the decision to assess means doing so remotely. That decision comes with a set of unique challenges. Remote testing introduces new variables to consider that are not present during the more controlled in-school testing environment. Because of that, greater preparation must be done in advance of any remote test in order to set students and educators up for success.
NWEA has more than six years of remote testing experience and this spring, completed more than 400,000 successful remote test events. From this amount of experience, we’ve established best practices and guidance for schools who are considering remote testing as an option for this academic year.
1. Communication between school and home must be top priority. The decision to assess, importance of the data, and how it will be used to guide instruction are all critical to openly share with student families before any single test is administered. In addition, the logistics of administering a test for many younger students will now involve a parent or caregiver helping with setting up a device for the test session. Clearly articulating examples of what is appropriate and what is not appropriate in terms of supporting students during testing is recommended. Clear lines of communication will help everyone move forward together to ensure the test experience is positive. How schools will communicate this effort must be at the top of the plan.
2. Invest in your proctors. Proctors are the primary point of contact for the student during the test, are responsible for ensuring that any technical hurdles are overcome, and help students get set up for a successful test-taking session. Therefore, investing in remote testing training for proctors is an investment worth making. Set the expectation for appropriate proctor training early, clearly and consistently throughout planning and implementation and ensure training has occurred.
3. Be ready for the technology hurdle – especially if the test is given at home. From this spring, we learned the two biggest tech-related hurdles were pop-up blockers and screen resolution errors, both easily solved in less than a minute if students are advised to check their device in advance. Other factors to consider include verifying the strength of the internet connection, and ensuring students are using a supported browser. Establishing clear protocols and guidance to help families navigate the device set-up process and making sure they know who to talk to in order to get support if issues arise is critical.
4. Support accessibility, accommodations and equity. Schools must be ready to help students gain access to assistive technology. They must also consider and guide when to use embedded accommodation features within the assessment platform or how students gain access to non-embedded accommodation features (e.g., bilingual dictionaries, English dictionary, abacus, etc.). And most importantly, they must have a clear plan to communicate with families regarding the use of accommodations.
And finally, there’s test integrity, security, and data reliability. Schools should consider security agreements with parents, active monitoring during tests, and formalized rules/protocols regarding usage of additional devices and the internet. Once tests are completed, the data should be scrutinized. This involves reviews of additional data elements including the proportion of items answered correctly, the proportion of items that were rapidly guessed, the overall test duration, and standard error of measure. In addition, we recommend caution when using remote testing data as a basis for high-stakes decisions for students, teachers, and/or schools, or to evaluate the effectiveness of remote instruction or delivery in individual schools.
Remote testing is similar in many ways to in-school testing, but it’s not exactly the same. Through strategic preparation, districts can achieve the goal of getting as close to the in-school testing experience as possible. Having a successful remote testing season will provide educators with reliable, quality data that informs instructional plans and ensures students are on a trajectory that fosters academic growth and keeps them engaged.