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An Opportunity for Equity: How to Use Assessments and Data the Right Way When Schools Reopen

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August 13th, 2020

This past weekend, I ventured out to Target for the first time in weeks. As I turned a corner and caught a glimpse of colorful displays packed with crayons, notebooks, and every type of pencil imaginable, I felt the excitement and anticipation for the start of school that I always feel this time of year. 

But just as quickly, I realized that I was alone in the aisle. There were no children scavenging for the perfect pocket folders or flustered parents trying to find the exact type of highlighter on the list. 

Like many others across the country, schools in my city are starting this fall online. Regardless of the instructional model—distance, hybrid, or in-person—this school year will undoubtedly be different. But, as Dena Simmons put it in a recent Educational Leadership article, “different” doesn’t have to be bad. COVID-19, she says, is the great “equity check” in education—a wake-up call and critical opportunity to focus on what matters most. 

Similarly, in a recent meeting with the COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech affirmed, “This is the beginning of a powerful change in American education. We all agree that we cannot return to business as usual. This can be a watershed point in our history where we succeed in promoting equity and excellence for all learners.”  


First, do no harm.

Over the last few weeks, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Center for Reinventing Public Education issued separate guidance outlining key strategies for assessing and accelerating learning in reentry. They both had one striking similarity: the stark warning to “Do no harm.”  

Unfortunately, we now know that some well-intentioned instructional practices have exacerbated achievement gaps and stifled students’ chances for success. As a recent article from The 74 Million cautioned, in the scramble to address learning loss and comply with public safety guidelines this fall, districts and schools could inadvertently establish harmful and inherently inequitable practices.

The authors cite academic tracking as one particularly detrimental practice that could be seen as schools work to understand and support students’ different needs this year. Generally defined as the designation of students to specific educational paths, tracking is similar to the concept of differentiation in that both practices recognize all students learn at different rates, in different ways. But unlike differentiated instruction, which promotes flexible grouping based upon multiple factors including student interests and learning preferences, academic tracks are more fixed and vulnerable to educators’ implicit biases. Extensive research has shown that the homogeneous-ability grouping that is characteristic of tracking more often results in inequitable learning experiences and segregation by race and socioeconomic status. Moreover, data shows that when students are assigned to a remedial track for even one year, their entire learning trajectory is disrupted and undermined by unjustified low expectations.

In another warning to educators, a report published as part of the Evidence Project drew attention to the potential for educators to “over-remediate” students based simply upon assumptions of learning loss in the absence of actionable data. A lack of usable data and the tools to monitor progress can ultimately give way to the harmful, inequitable effects of implicit biases and lowered expectations for certain student populations. The authors also caution that educators may focus too much on what students know, as opposed to how they feel. Given the different experiences students may have faced in time away from school, such as food insecurity and other types of trauma, the reasons for academic struggles must be understood, not assumed.  

But the strongest warning from the report, echoed by CCSSO and other organizations, is related to the misuse of assessments. Whether it be testing too little, testing too often, testing for the wrong reasons, or using data in a way that perpetuates unfair learning trajectories, assessments must be selected, administered, and acted upon the right way to protect students and support learning. Experts and advocates agree that assessments are perhaps more important now than ever to understand students’ needs and respond with equitable support. 


Getting it right in reentry

As we prepare for students to return next school year, it’s more important than ever to focus on establishing equitable systems and avoiding practices that have been proven harmful. In Detracking for Excellence and Equity, the authors explain that it is through the effective application of data that educators can challenge assumptions and prevent tendencies toward harmful practices. Fortunately, we can look to best practice and leverage technology to make that happen.

Here are three essential actions for equity in reentry:

1) Establish a comprehensive, balanced assessment system

Despite the many projections of learning loss that have made headlines over the last several weeks, the reality is that teachers will be entering classrooms (physical or remote) without any real sense of where to start. It’s essential that districts implement a balanced assessment system, with an understanding of each assessment’s purpose and the type of data yielded to avoid misuse and to meaningfully guide teaching and learning. Given the importance of every instructional minute, stakeholders must ensure that assessment content is high-quality and administration is seamless.  It’s also more critical than ever that districts have a plan to screen and monitor students’ social-emotional wellness with a research-based tool, such as SAEBRS.  According to the Center for Reinventing Public Education, “We need to know both what kids know and how they feel (safe, healthy, frightened) to inform instruction, now more than ever.” With valid, reliable measures, educators can avoid making potentially harmful assumptions and better understand students’ unique strengths and needs.  And, the data from a thoughtful assessment system can be used to target instruction and monitor growth, ensuring all students receive the supports they deserve.

2) Build a culture of data among educators

Educators have long appreciated the importance of data, but now, perhaps more than ever, data must be a central part of every process at every level to ensure equity. According to a recent survey from the Data Quality Campaign, less than half of teachers reported receiving any support for making meaning of data during distance learning this past spring. However, most agreed they needed it to truly serve their students. Functional data systems with dynamic visualizations help to protect against biases, generate deeper insights into subgroup and individual growth, and empower educators to take strategic action and serve students better.  But even with the best tools, educators need embedded professional learning to establish positive protocols and get the most out of the data. As I’ve shared in earlier posts, a positive data culture is ultimately defined by its routines and norms. Thus, even in virtual settings, district and school leaders should engage in relevant, actionable professional learning that challenges thinking and reinforce regular equity-centered data team meetings and PLCs for collaborative data analysis and decision-making.

3) Understand and support the whole child

Data can tell us students’ stories, if we’re willing and able to listen. The need for insights into academic, social-emotional, and behavioral needs to ensure equity has truly never been greater, which is why educators benefit from a comprehensive solution that brings student data together in one place for efficiency and holistic visualizations. Without a way to make greater meaning of both quantitative and qualitative data through different lenses, such as academic performance, attendance, trauma, and school climate, differences can be mistaken for deficits.  

The next school year will be unlike anything educators, students, and parents have ever experienced. And while there are surely many challenges ahead, we can seize this opportunity for equity by committing to best practices and utilizing assessments and data the right way for all students.


Illuminate Education partners with K-12 educators to equip them with data to serve the whole child and reach new levels of student performance. Our solution brings together holistic data and collaborative tools and puts them in the hands of educators. Illuminate supports over 17 million students and 5200 districts/schools.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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