4 Key Implications of Delaying the Nation’s Academic Report Card

What you need to know about the Department of Education's decision to delay the 2021 NAEP: America's most comprehensive tracker of educational development.

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This week, the National Center for Education Studies announced they would delay the National Assessment of Education Progress, or the NAEP. Dubbed the Nation’s Report Card and known for their biennial national math and reading tests for fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students, the NAEP will now take place in 2022. 

According to their website, the NAEP is the “only assessment that measures what U.S. students know and can do in various subjects across the nation, states, and some urban districts.” The assessment, initiated in 1969, provides crucial insights for NCES officials, school administrators, and others who rely on the results to gauge trends in students’ learning of the core academic subjects and compare trends on a state-by-state basis. NAEP results do not provide individual student performance information, instead it informs us on how student groups are doing.  In a typical year, hundreds of thousands of fourth- and eighth-graders would be preparing to take this exam sometime between January and March.

Change in average scores between 2017 and 2019 for eighth-grade public school students assessed in NAEP reading, by state/jurisdiction: Source

The Commissioner of the NCES, James Woodworth, Ph.D., published the official statement on behalf of the NCES after the postponement was proposed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Woodworth explained that the lack of physical attendance and increase in remote learning made it too difficult for the NAEP to get accurate results of student progress. Due to the many educational changes caused by  COVID-19,  results would also not be comparable to previous or future years of assessments. 

Cost-Benefit of Delaying NAEP

By postponing the nation’s education report card by one year, Woodworth hopes to allow school operations and student attendance to stabilize before conducting such a large-scale  assessment in order to get more reliable data. 

  1. Issue: Stress and Resources

Teachers and students are already presented with numerous obstacles to overcome due to COVID. Learning today, whether it be remote or socially distant, is different and therefore called for a transition period. Teachers are already challenged to cover all of their content, keep students engaged via a screen, and keep kids accountable with less supervision than ever before.

By delaying the assessment, Woodworth hopes to ease the workload of teachers. Furthermore, the delay will allow time for the states to conduct their own state assessments this spring.

  1. Issue: Financial Risk and Accuracy

Unlike state-level tests which are administered by school staff and measure student performance on the state-particular standards, The NAEP writes its own assessment and calls for outside proctoring. Running the NAEP assessments costs tens of millions of dollars—a cost well worth it if produces valid, nation-wide results. Unfortunately, as Woodworth claims, there is a clear risk this year of spending tens of millions of dollars only to receive inaccurate results.

Because testing occurs every other year, the next assessment couldn’t legally happen until 2023 without this postponement.

“Woodworth said a change in operations and lack of access for students to be assessed means that NAEP would not be able to produce estimates of students’ knowledge when compared to either past or future national or state estimates.”

  1. Issue: Pandemic Health Risks

This decision also decreases health risks in the midst of COVID. The Associated Press explained that the NCES sends proctors to conduct the NAEP assessments with shared equipment. Students would have to come to school to take the assessment. For the many schools that have transitioned to remote or blended learning this would appear to be counterproductive.  

Waiting a year eliminates the chance of putting students, teachers, assessment proctors, and the public health system at risk.

  • Counterpoint: Understanding the Pandemic’s Adverse Academic Effects

Some educational leaders advocated for the NAEP to take place because it could be a helpful way to better understand how the pandemic has  affected learning and education this year. Some experts also worry that without the NAEP assessment, a lot more pressure is placed on state-level assessments, which could also be cancelled like they were last spring under the federal waiving of state tests.

If states continue to skip annual assessments, they would just have a larger gap in data and little insight on how Covid-19 has affected learning, or the “COVID slide.”

Without the NAEP, How Else Can We Measure the “COVID-Slide”?

While we will have to wait an additional year for NAEP results, there are other organizations working to collect data on the “COVID-slide.”

These organizations share the goal to better understand how students are academically responding to this year’s educational environment. The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a nonprofit research group, is one of the leading groups working to collect reliable data on a national level using their own assessments. The NWEA’s trademark MAP Growth assessment (Measure of Academic Progress) in reading and math subjects has been used in thousands of school districts to measure student “growth and proficiency” of both in-person and remote learners, and can be used to provide insights into the “COVID-slide.”

The NWEA’s research-based project predicted that students in the fall of 2020 would lose 30-50% of their learning gains when compared with students in the same grade during the fall of 2019. These projections were based on seasonal learning loss, as well as “additional aspects of trauma to students, loss of resources, and loss of opportunity to learn” caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and school closures.

Projected Mathematics “COVID-Slide”: Source

Projected Reading “COVID-Slide”: Ibid

Not So Slippery After All

While the late-winter and early spring projections by the NWEA in 2020 painted a grim picture, recent empirical results by the organization indicate otherwise.

While the Northwest Evaluation Association projected students in grades 3 through 8 would lose about 30% of learning in reading and 50% in math compared to students in the fall of 2019, students in 2020 actually performed similarly in reading, and only lost about 5-10% of learning in math. NWEA summarized that “students showed growth in both reading and math achievement since the onset of COVID-19 disruptions, but growth in math was lower than in a typical year.” 

These findings are extremely helpful as schools evaluate how distance learning and the pandemic has affected their students’ progress. While taking the time to administer large scale testing might seem like a burden during this unpredictable year, the data collected from these assessments provide valuable insight in a truly unprecedented time that can help us learn where our students need a little extra help. 

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