Assessments: The Key to Closing the COVID Achievement Gap

By Dane Linn and Cheryl Oldham

The pandemic’s impact on Americans’ daily lives is so pervasive that it’s difficult to grasp how deep and long-lasting its effects will be. Yet when it comes to our nation’s students, we’re already seeing the adverse impacts, particularly on their educational outcomes. The damage to students’ academic foundations isn’t just a problem today — without data-driven interventions, it will hamstring our workforce for decades to come.

Research on COVID-era virtual learning on students’ academic performance points to troubling learning loss and potential implications for individuals’ long-term success. A recent McKinsey and Co. study found that students in their sample were up to five months behind where students typically begin academically in math, with the most significant setbacks occurring among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Similarly, Brookings Institution compared Fall 2020 student assessment data with outcomes from the prior school year and found losses in math of up to 10 percentile points (fortunately, students fared far better in reading). An OECD working paper further suggests future economic impacts of pandemic-era learning loss for individuals and, by extension, countries.

The first step to addressing the long-term impacts of K-12 school closures is to collect the data that will help us quantify where and how students are falling behind. Importantly, such data would help identify students who have fallen behind, or are at risk of falling behind, and chart a course to restore learning losses.

Some state leaders are requesting that the federal government waive the annual federal assessment requirement in 2021. We strongly disagree and, in fact, believe eliminating assessments this year would thwart a critical opportunity to gather information on student achievement. Statewide tests to measure academic progress will allow policymakers, parents, educators, researchers and communities to better understand the true academic toll of COVID-19.

We urge the Biden Administration to maintain annual statewide summative tests and decline additional further waivers. The exemptions from federal testing mandates granted in the first half of 2020 were a reasonable response to the emerging virus, especially given the requirement to close schools without notice or planning. But now, nearly a year into the pandemic, we need to start planning for the administration of statewide summative assessments now. That includes providing extra federal support and technical assistance to states and districts to help surmount assessment challenges.

The second step to addressing the COVID-19 student learning slide is for states to reopen schools for in-person learning. The sooner students are back in school, the sooner we can help get children back on the path to academic and future professional success. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health organizations have outlined protocols that, if followed, can mitigate the risk of COVID spread in schools. Congress should take decisive action to provide American schools with the financial resources they need to open while maintaining all safety precautions.

By 2040, most current K-12 students will be participants in the workforce, so what we do today to support them — especially the most vulnerable — will have a direct impact on their success as working professionals. It will also dictate how the United States competes in the global economy.

Following through with student assessments this year and getting students and teachers safely back into classrooms — even when the circumstances are difficult — will be critical to the continued success of America’s K-12 education system. We urge policymakers to take this critical step on behalf of our nation’s young learners.

Dane is Vice President, Education & Workforce and Immigration at Business Roundtable. Cheryl Oldham is the Vice President of Education Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Business Roundtable is an association of CEOs of leading U.S. companies working to promote sound public policy and a thriving U.S. economy.