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Janresseger: Big Data on Learning Loss Is Not the Point: Teachers Know How to Use Formative Assessments to Guide Their Work with Each Child

Recently on the news, I heard an education researcher discussing the importance of using standardized tests to measure something called “learning loss” across racial, ethnic, and regional groups of children during the pandemic.

Like so many others, this so-called expert made the for case for reinstating—this spring during the pandemic—the standardized testing prescribed by the federal government in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Ignoring the impossibility of collecting valid and reliable data and the impracticality of even of trying to administer the tests when some students are learning online and others attending in-person classrooms, this person pretended Miguel Cardona, the new education secretary, can merely require the tests and they will happen.  She implied that the mandated tests in two subjects, basic language arts and math, will inform teaching once students come back to school even though we know that teachers do not receive scores for months and the data they receive will not contain information about the particular questions students get right or wrong. And she didn’t mention that even if a teacher did know exactly how a student marked any particular multiple choice answer, it would tell the teacher nothing about that student’s thinking.

Then this specialist who wanted to measure “learning loss” reinforced the notion that the collection of national data would enable the federal government and the states to invest in the schools where children are farthest behind. Advocates for standardized testing this spring often justify the need for testing during the pandemic as a way to drive investment in schools, as though investing in schools where children are farther behind has ever been the result of our regime of standardized testing. Anybody who has been paying attention over the past two decades since NCLB mandated annual standardized testing knows that aggregate test scores have not once—federally or at the state level—driven added funding to the schools where students’ scores are low.

The whole regime has been correctly called “test-and-punish” because NCLB prescribed sanctions for so-called failing schools and the states have adopted the same responses: add charter school choice in so called “failing” school districts; make students in so-called “failing” schools eligible for vouchers for private school tuition; close so-called “failing” schools and relocate the students; take over the so-called “failing” school districts in Detroit or Newark or Philadelphia or Chester Upland or Lorain or Youngstown or East Cleveland and put a state-appointed overseer in charge.

Title I is an important national program providing federal compensatory funding for school districts serving concentrations of poor children, but if he can bring Congress along, President Biden has already promised to triple funding for this federal program which has long been underfunded despite two decades of standardized testing which have clearly identified Title I schools as places desperately in need of greater investment.  During the presidential campaign last year, Biden identified the need for more money in the same school districts where families have been devastated by COVID-19: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Seventy-four education advocacy groups and over 10,000 individuals wrote a letter to the incoming education secretary to demand that he grant states waivers to cancel the NCLB/ESSA mandated testing.  One sentence in that letter stood out for me: “To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

I worry that many people do lack faith in schoolteachers, because I believe that most people lack any understanding of what teachers do.

In a profound article, the executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, Patricia Wright explains the work of teachers in words that will perhaps help the public grasp why Miguel Cardona should readily grant states waivers to skip standardized testing this spring.

Wright begins: “There has been a lot of talk lately about ‘learning loss.’ How will students catch up? What will educators do when schools are finally able to return to full in-person instruction?… Students do not need to feel like they are now susceptible to failure or that their future is in jeopardy because they may not have fully grasped certain skills and knowledge. Educators know that students need to see themselves, not just making up what they may have lost, but moving forward and accelerating their learning. Educators know how to do this work. They do it every day. Schools across the state are already collecting student data, examining and revising their curriculum and making plans to continually use assessment information throughout the next school year to inform their instruction. This will allow them to provide the necessary interventions and supports to ensure students can continue to accelerate their learning. This is the professional practice of education, something we do very well in New Jersey.”

Wrignt continues: “Schools will need to depend on formative assessment, which is assessment for learning.  It is currently used by educators to identify where students are in relation to the academic standards that are required in their current grade level… Formatively assessing students throughout the year will allow educators to bridge the learning gaps as students continue to move forward, focused simultaneously on remediation and acceleration.”

For a better understanding of formative testing, we can turn to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing’s Monty Neill, who defines the kind of formative testing teachers use all the time: “(T)eachers must gather information. Teachers must keep track of student learning, check up on what students have learned, and find out what’s going on with them. Keeping track means observing and documenting what students do. Checking up involves various kinds of testing and quizzing. Finding out is the heart of classroom assessment: What does the child mean? What did the child get from the experience? Why did the child do what he or she did? To find out, teachers must ask questions for which they do not already know the answers. To gather all this information, teachers can rely on a range of assessment activities. These include structured and spur-of-the-moment observations that are recorded and filed; formal and informal interviews; collections of work samples; use of extended projects, performances, and exhibitions; performance exams; and various forms of short-answer testing.”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...