Remote learning has shaken up the way educators teach—and how teachers measure student growth.
Some worry students may fall behind without in-person instruction. The fear is greater for students already struggling in school. Educators say just because learning looks different during the COVID-19 pandemic, it doesn't mean students do worse. Some argue now is the time to reconsider how to assess students.
The question of "how students are performing" is not straight forward this school year. Most students have learned virtually since March. Lessons aren't the same as in the classroom. Neither are the ways educators grade students.
Diane Wolf is assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for District 87. She said the traditional A-B-C-D grading system doesn't mean the same now.
"We have students going through a traumatic event as a society," Wolf said. "So, if we continue to use the same benchmarks that we always have, what does that say about us as educators? We really should be taking this time to teach kids resiliency, new ways of looking at things."
Wolf said maybe that means "A" students show up for remote learning every day, give it their best shot, learn new technologies, and cope with the stress of the global health emergency. It may not be traditional, Wolf said, but she guarantees no one sits around not learning anything.
"I think that that's really important--that we do not discredit what's happening every day in family life," she said. "We have kids that are learning fractions because they're baking with a parent or guardian. They're not doing it on a worksheet maybe, but they're actually doing and applying the skills. We have students that are reading for how to maneuver a new game that they want to play. That's still reading.”
It's too soon to tell how COVID-19 hinders student performance. Projections by the Brookings Institution before school began, suggested students would return this fall with 70% of gains in reading from the previous year. The number is lower for math—less than 50% retention. Brookings researchers suggested younger students lose more.
Early data from student assessments this semester show students may be faring better than originally assumed.
Wolf said she does not worry students will lose an entire year of learning, though they may need to shore up certain skills. But that's true every school year.
A need for feedback
State School Superintendent Carmen Ayala agreed students can learn without traditional grades, as long as they get assessment and feedback.
"We're encouraging our educators to use ungraded polls, to use surveys, quick writes, interviews, mini conferences and learning logs to help students synthesize learning and help teachers gauge students progress," Ayala said during a Hunt Institute virtual panel.
Ayala said formats like multiple choice and true/false may be easier to administer--especially in a remote environment. But they don't reveal enough about student understanding. With students out of the classroom, faculty do fewer competency and readiness checks on growth. For instance, Bloomington High School and some others canceled final exams.
The state encourages educators to prioritize project-based learning, to talk about where kids need more support, and to have students write about what they've learned. Ayala said these principles should transcend remote learning. Many teachers have pushed for alternative ways to measure student growth for years. That's what the whole standards-based grading movement is about.
Linsay DeMartino with Illinois State University's College of Education said the pandemic is a good opportunity to think about what education can be, rather than default to the status quo. DeMartino said the stakes are now higher for some students.
"With the shift in remote learning due to the pandemic, there's cause to be concerned over running the risk of broadening and reinforcing the social divide," DeMartino said. "Emerging from the digital divide, the social divide, results in an online penalty—where it's more severe for struggling and vulnerable students, especially when it comes to inequitable standardized assessments and whatnot.”
DeMartino said the learning outcomes have less to do with students, and more to do with how schools provide equitable and inclusive education—and student assessments are part of that.
While remote learning might prove more challenging for some students, others may thrive in this different environment. Gavin Weiser, also with ISU's College of Education, said it may be a safer and more flexible space for students.
Weiser recalled an anecdote from a colleague's podcast.
"She was talking about how her daughter has fully embraced her blackness and being able to study Black figures in a way that she didn't feel comfortable with in school," Weiser said. "I think that's a really positive thing for some students who are able to study the things they want without fear of judgment from their peers."
Educators are adjusting to the digital divide by altering course structure. Sarah Diel Hunt, Heartland Community College's enrollment chief, said teachers are scaling back to the bare essentials to make it less overwhelming for students. She said they change when they introduce some course material so students can "catch up" if they miss something.
"So that if a student does take a little bit longer to get acclimated and get the hang of things, they haven't fallen so far behind that they get discouraged—so offering opportunities toward the mid and later parts of courses to make up ground for shown improvement," she said.
District 87's Wolf said she understands concerns about student performance. But she said it's up to parents and teachers to make sure students keep up.
“This idea that students are going to be behind is a really scary narrative to tell kids. As the adults in a child's life, it is our job to remind them of what they have learned, and what they can learn, instead of looking at this experience as the worst thing that's ever happened to them.”
Wolf said when students return to the classroom the focus will be on moving forward, not what they missed by being remote.
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