School exam
Michael Q. McShane

Missouri schools closed their doors in March and will not likely re-open them until this fall. This approach risks serious learning loss. Researchers affiliated with the testing nonprofit NWEA project that, “Preliminary estimates suggest impacts may be larger in math than in reading and that students may return in fall 2020 with less than 50% of typical learning gains and, in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would expect in this subject in normal conditions.”

Like most things in education, the losses will probably not be spread evenly across the population. Students from families that have been able to provide instruction at home will likely suffer less than those who haven’t. Students from districts that have been able to more competently roll out distance learning will be in a better position than those from districts that have not. But, even within districts, schools, or classrooms, there will likely be a wide range of consequences from this crisis.

Assuming that students can return to some semblance of normalcy in the fall, teachers are going to need to know where students are and what needs to be remediated so that students can move forward.

As part of the shutdown, Missouri (like every other state) has cancelled its state assessment, and even in the best of times, those scores are of limited value when it comes to shaping instruction. What teachers need is a focused diagnostic assessment that can identify the key building blocks from the previous academic year that students have missed so they know where to start and what supplemental efforts are required.

Here’s an idea. Why don’t teachers come up with their own assessment? The Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE) could convene a virtual working group for each grade level and 10 to 20 teachers could put together an assessment that tests what students should know when they start that grade. These teachers know best what kids need to know at the start of the year and I’m confident they know how to assess it.

Because this would just be a diagnostic tool, most of the concerns around standardized testing don’t really apply. Test security isn’t an issue, because there is no incentive for students to do better or worse on the test. Reliability is basically a non-starter as this is a one-off event. The validity of the test should be strong because the people who will bear the brunt of its success or failure (the teachers who will have the students in their classes) are the ones making it.

Now, I understand the broad diversity of schools in Missouri, so one test might not be appropriate. But this could be done through similar districts collaborating with one another. That way,  there isn’t just one test, but rather 5 or 7 throughout the state based on school needs.

It would be great if researchers could get access to the results, as measuring and quantifying the impact of COVID-19 is something they are going to be trying to figure out for years. That said, making an assessment that is useful to researchers is not the primary goal here. If it is useful to researchers, that’s great, but if not, that’s okay too.

DESE does not need to contract with an expensive testing vendor to create a useful assessment. Some small stipends for teachers’ time and free open-access platforms can be used to create and disseminate the tests.

What do y’all think? Can we get this done?


About the Author

Michael McShane
Senior Fellow of Education Policy

Mike McShane is Senior Fellow of Education Policy for the Show-Me Institute. He is a former high school teacher and earned his PhD in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Before coming to the Show-Me Institute, Mike worked at the American Enterprise Institute as a research fellow.