Editor’s note: This story by Kelly Burch of the Granite State News Collaborative is part of a series that takes a look at how school districts across the state responded to the challenges of remote learning. The Bangor Daily News is republishing this series to show the solutions our neighbors have found in adapting their education system to fit this new need. Read the rest of the series here.
The Milton School District, SAU 64, has traditionally struggled with student proficiency on standardized testing. But at the beginning of 2020 Jan Radowicz, principal of Nute Middle High School in Milton, was looking forward to testing. The district had been working hard to address its students’ gaps in achievement and Radowicz was confident that scores would show that progress.
“We were having a great year,” Radowicz said. “Then, the pandemic hit.”
Although the district hasn’t measured student progress since the transition to remote learning, Radowicz anticipates that some of the progress her students have made will be erased by time outside the classroom.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. Still, she feels confident that the district knows how to recoup the lost learning. “We’ll continue the work that we’ve started in the last several years, supporting that with interventions and skills workshops.”
Monitoring student progress through formal and informal assessments helps educators determine how they’re doing at a macro- and micro-level. One test score or assessment can help a teacher understand how an individual student has achieved — or missed out on — a particular skill. Standardized tests allow for a wide-scale glimpse of how a district is doing in terms of student achievement.
“These types of assessments help us look at the system level and see things from that larger level,” said Melissa White, the administrator for academics and assessment with the New Hampshire Department of Education. “They help us to guide resources and allow us to address whatever inequities we may find, particularly for vulnerable or high needs groups.”
During remote learning, both types of assessments were interrupted. The state obtained a federal waiver to bypass standardized testing requirements, and many districts adopted a pass/fail model for students rather than grading assignments (for high school students a GPA was calculated based on existing letter grades, so this won’t affect college applications).
However, the specifics of monitoring student progress varied widely across the state, since each school and district was able to set its own standards for assessing students during remote learning. Looking forward, educators who spoke with The Granite State News Collaborative agree that assessing students is going to be important so that schools can address any gaps in learning that arose during remote instruction. While pass/fail instruction or evaluating just the core competencies might work for a short time, it’s important that teachers, parents and students have a more accurate evaluation of their progress and achievement, educators said.
At Nute Middle High School, students continued to receive letter grades during remote learning. The staff discussed the option of switching to a pass/fail model, but wanted to adequately acknowledge the work that students were putting in.
“Some kids were working super hard to get that A, and it felt unfair not to give them that grade they’re working so hard for,” Radowicz said.
In the fall, if students are able to return to the classroom, they’ll eventually take the New Hampshire Statewide Assessment (NH SAS) and the SAT — the two standardized tests that the district uses — but Radowicz says she won’t rush to administer those assessments.
“Our kids were a little traumatized by this pandemic anyway, and the last thing we want to do when they walk in the door is give them a test,” she said.
‘The records of your patients’
Manchester is another district that traditionally struggles with student proficiency. Even within the district, Beech Street Elementary School stands out for high poverty rates and many English language learners. When the pandemic hit, principal Katrina Esparza knew that closely monitoring progress was one way she could support students who were going to have additional challenges during remote learning, including English language learners and special needs students.
Esparza knew that keeping data on students would help not only during remote learning, but when students returned to the classroom.
“It’s like being handed the records of the patients,” Esparza said.
Esparza required her staff to keep detailed data on each student, with regular assessment on their progress.
“My teachers had to become secretarial staff on top of everything,” she said. The result was that students and parents could see exactly where a specific student was having trouble, and address those gaps sooner than if assessments weren’t being done regularly.
“I can pick out anybody in the building and tell you where they fell,” Esparza said.
During remote learning, Beech Street teachers worked in teams to streamline services. One teacher might make math assignments for the whole grade, while another might handle reading. Once a week those teams would come together — along with English language learners and special education instructors — to discuss grade-wide proficiencies. The groups also discussed how to evaluate proficiencies — for example, if a student completed two assignments very well, but didn’t do the third at all, the teachers could still see that the student had the skill that was being assessed.
Esparza, who was hired in 2019, was confident coming in that her data-driven approach to learning would help close the school’s achievement gap, but that became even more important during remote learning, because the constant assessment allowed Beech Street to adjust instruction in real time to meet students’ needs.
“Beech thought through things and did them in 10-day increments of learning,” Esparza said. After that, they looked at the data. “On day six we had time to say, ‘This is working, let’s keep going,’ or ‘This is not working, let’s wrap this up and try to address this.’”
Focusing on essential competencies
When Grantham Village School switched to remote learning, superintendent Sydney Leggett instructed her staff to focus on teaching the most important skills — those that are direct building blocks for future learning.
“We really needed to get down to the essential competencies that we knew that students needed the most,” said Leggett. In the 2018-19 school year, Grantham did well with that — more than 80 percent of students scored above proficiency on state assessments. But Leggett said she wasn’t worried about test scores as much as she was focused on making sure that students would have the skills that they would build upon at the next grade level. Because of that, students ended the year with many sections on their report cards that read “NA” for “not assessed.”
For essential skills, the district relied on assignments submitted through Google Classroom. Some teachers had students take videos, photos or screenshots to demonstrate their work. For reading skills, particularly with younger students, teachers did one-on-one assessment through Zoom.
With remote assessment of skills, it wasn’t always possible to know how much help a child was getting from their parent, or whether they were being assessed on their skills alone. While teachers were mindful of that, they also couldn’t worry about it too much, Leggett said.
“We decided that couldn’t be a major concern at this time because there were so many other things that took precedence,” she said.
One of those priorities is addressing the social and emotional impact of the pandemic for students, Leggett said. In a recent parent survey, that’s what district parents were most concerned about, so Grantham is looking into making additional counseling sessions and other emotional supports available.
“Socio-emotional health is the biggest thing we need to think about,” she said. “If we don’t have that, the academics aren’t going to happen.”
The district hasn’t decided yet whether students will return to the classrooms or have remote learning in the fall, so educators are actively discussing what assessment might look like for both options, Leggett said. She hasn’t determined whether students will take a standardized test in the fall, or whether teachers will rely on formal and informal classroom assessments. The district is most focused on addressing the gaps in learning that Leggett said are a global effect of the pandemic.
“I don’t know many places that will be where they were if none of this would have happened,” she said. “We have to do what we always do: find out where students are and build from there.”
Reassessing standardized testing
Standardized testing is based on average student abilities, in an effort to identify outliers. With the remote learning affecting skills for most students, the number of students performing below-average this fall would be “through the roof,” said Ryan Long, former president of the New Hampshire Association of School Psychologists, whose term ended in June.
“We’re going to have such high numbers of students behind in those skills,” Long said. “We need to start by beefing up quality core instructional intervention for everybody.”
Special needs students are identified through referrals from parents and using standardized testing. Long pointed out that the validity of those tests has been undermined by remote instruction.
“We would have a high number of kids qualify for special education if we did evaluations right away,” he said. He would like to see districts provide remedial education for all students for two to three months, before testing students for special needs, in most cases.
If districts opt for remote or hybrid learning, administering standardized tests could continue to prove difficult, he said.
“There are validity issues, because they are not designed for remote testing.”
The state is addressing that in part by making a remote option for the NH SAS, said White, at the Department of Education. However, other tests used to monitor student progress, including the SAT for high schoolers, the ACCESS test for English language learners and many assessments for special needs students, do not have a remote option. The DLM, an assessment used for students with the most severe disabilities, is working on a remote option, White said.
Despite the problems with test data after a period of interrupted learning, White said that educators are not coming into the 2020-2021 school year blind. They have data on student performance from two-thirds of last year, and limited data from the last third. In order to supplement that, the state plans to administer a mandatory interim NH SAS assessment for 4th through 8th grade students at public and charter schools in October. The test will be half the length of the usual NH SAS, but will give valuable information, White said.
“This would be in October, once schools have had time to get readjusted, to see where things are in each community,” White said. “It will be short, quick and able to give us that system-wide perspective on where students are and where gaps might be, so we can identify concerns about quality and dedicate resources to schools and districts that might need them.”
Hilary Niles contributed to this report
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.