This is the latest in posts I have published recently about “learning loss” — each with a different look at how we should approach the issues around what young people lost, not learned, or gained while schools were shut during the coronavirus pandemic.

The first was by Rachael Gabriel, associate professor of literacy education at the University of Connecticut, who started her piece with this provocative sentence, “There is no such thing as learning loss.” She argued that students have learned things during the pandemic that aren’t measured on standardized tests.

The second was written by Bridget Terry Long, dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, who wrote about how we can ensure this hasn’t been a lost year for students.

The third, written by William Penuel and Katherine Schultz, argues that “learning loss is a faulty way to diagnose the challenges faced by children and youth as a result of the pandemic” and offers a path to moving forward.

This new post was written by Michael Matsuda, superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District in California, and Debra Russell, head of engagement at TeachFX, an app for teachers that uses voice artificial intelligence to measure student engagement.

By Michael Matsuda and Debra Russell

“Learning loss” is emerging as the dominant theme in K-12 education for 2021. Open any newspaper or digital publication and there is certain to be someone waxing on about how important it is for us to address, and that this work cannot wait. It is as much a concern for policymakers and politicians as it is for the educators and families served in our schools.

There is much to account for when it comes to what our children have lost in this last year: connections to their peers, the myriad social interactions that animate a school every day, important milestone experiences such as attending grade-level promotions and proms, hours immersed in a setting surrounded by books and academic references, as well as the people many have lost across their communities to covid-19. The mental health of our students, their families and all who work in education cannot be sidelined here, either.

But one might argue that the most concerning thing that has been “lost” is our focus on doing what is right for students. The Biden administration’s decision recently to proceed with standardized testing — albeit with expanded flexibility and lighter repercussions — is perplexing where it’s not problematic.

The decision was justified because “it is vitally important that parents, educators and the public have access to data on student learning and success.” But it appears they have glossed over concrete concerns that such data may be severely skewed and thus serve little utility to help our children.

Even early reports such as those from the nonprofit testing organization NWEA that the losses in academic progress are not as bleak as predicted are fraught with questions:

  • Were our most vulnerable students included?
  • Were testing conditions the same for all students?
  • Did we learn anything new from this investment of time and resources?
  • How does this data help teachers to improve instruction in our classrooms now?

Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, a nonprofit that works to address the changes underway in educational assessment and accountability, warns that industry experts are “nervous about the validity of the results” on tests to be administered in the spring.

He said that the intent of such data for comparative purposes is marred by uneven rates of participation and the varied pace of learning in schools. If administered remotely, these concerns are compounded by the stability of home Internet access, potential help from family members and proper accommodations for the students who need them.

The timing of the tests is another concerning variable because of the flexibility extended to schools as part of this federal mandate. In short, the purpose of such a large investment during a global pandemic as a tool for comparing or even understanding the progress of a school system is dubious. Marion said he questions whether, based on all these variables, it is purely an “intellectual exercise at this point.”

Many school leaders — and parents — are frustrated, and they are making their views heard.

One parent with children attending school in the Austin area said: “This is not the time to assess students’ growth and learning via the [state test]. It’s only going to reflect what parents and teachers already know. Everyone is struggling — students and teachers. Look at the grade book.”

Another parent in a nearby district concluded that: “Assessing students during this time only adds the trauma that they may be experiencing.”

Teachers have taken to social media to spell out various reasons state testing should be canceled again this year. One of their most compelling arguments: Turning over weeks and weeks of school time and attention to focus on administering tests right now only exacerbates concerns about learning loss because it deprives teachers of the few remaining opportunities they have this year to engage students in the experience of learning together.

Several of the handmade signs teachers are posting remind us that our students have also gained things that no standardized test is designed to measure.

They have learned that school can take on different shapes and forms — online, hybrid, in learning pods, asynchronously, and alongside their parents — without bells and bathroom passes.

Students have learned that schools are not just classrooms but also centers for connecting with health care and food when in need.

They have learned how inequalities pervade our communities as students without their own technology and reliable WiFi were the ones denied access to schooling in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. And they have learned how science is a powerful force for protecting us and the ones we love, leading many students to develop new interest in the sciences for their futures.

Literacy education professor Rachael Gabriel wrote that we are imposing a “previously imagined trajectory leading to a previously imagined future” in our myopic rush to assess only the academic welfare of our students. And she challenges us to think differently about the issue: “What if we imagined the ‘corona kids’ had learned more than their previous cohorts?”

The pandemic has been a traumatic, discombobulating experience in different ways for all of us. But an erratic return to the way we have always done things in our schools without embracing the lessons learned by our students, our parents and our teachers about how school systems can work in new and possibly more meaningful ways — all so that we can collect inconclusive data points — is evidence that the losses in learning we should be most concerned about are our own.