Marc Morial is president and chief executive of the National Urban League. Janet Murguía is president and chief executive of UnidosUS.

A year into the covid-19 pandemic, we are still only guessing about the true magnitude of the impact on our communities.

We know that many students have struggled academically, socially and emotionally over the past year. This is particularly true for our most underserved students, who already faced inadequate and inequitable access to resources and opportunities before the pandemic. Students have lost instructional time, with students of color more likely to receive instruction virtually despite being less likely to have high-speed Internet at home. As many as 3 million children were missing from schools in October.

But the data is limited; we lack a full picture of what extra help students and families need. That’s why we support the Biden administration’s decision rejecting calls to issue a blanket waiver of statewide assessments. It is just the type of courage the administration needs to seriously advance racial equity in our government institutions.

For decades, the civil rights community has been fighting for transparency in data as a means of ensuring that Black and Latino students have the same access to high-quality learning opportunities as their White peers. Parents and families need comparable information to advocate for their children. We fought hard to maintain and improve assessments in the Every Student Succeeds Act because we are committed to the principles of equity and transparency in measuring student progress.

We also know that disparities in educational opportunity are not unique to the pandemic. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, language discrimination and segregation created a second-class system of education for children of color in the United States. More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, our schools are more segregated than at any point since 1968. Black and Latino students are less likely than their peers to have access to rigorous courses and high-quality teachers, and they are disproportionately suspended and expelled.

President Biden has committed to promoting racial equity. Continuing to measure student learning during the pandemic and providing resources to schools and communities so they can act meaningfully on the data to address inequities help to put this promise into action.

The American Rescue Plan represents an unprecedented investment by the federal government in our public schools and provides an opportunity to make equitable and systemic changes. At a time when students have experienced more than a year of disruption, disconnect and trauma, we urge school leaders to target these new dollars to advance racial equity and close achievement gaps in education. Now more than ever, our children need meaningful access to mental health supports, extended learning opportunities, school meals and other wraparound services that provide our children with much-needed stability and opportunities to grow.

As has always been the case in moments of crisis, our Urban League and UnidosUS affiliates across the country have stepped up by distributing meals, computer devices, WiFi access and other supports to students and by helping families affected by layoffs to find work and stable housing, among other assistance. Our affiliates have even partnered with schools, cities and communities to host covid-19 testing and vaccination sites.

We understand these are unprecedented times and the impulse is to make school more manageable for all parties involved — students, parents, teachers and administrators. But it’s precisely because of the disruption to learning that we need a practical way to measure its impact on students — especially students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, students with disabilities and students learning English.

There are other ways to evaluate the academic status of each student. But statewide assessments are the only objective, consistent and comparable measure of student progress we have. Grades and formative assessments have their purpose, but policymakers cannot use them to create systematic comparisons of student and school performance within states, as they can with standardized statewide assessments.

Of course, students unable to safely attend school in person should not be brought back for the sole purpose of taking a test. The Biden administration is providing necessary resources to safely reopen schools and has granted flexibility to states on the timing of tests. States can test in the summer, or even in the fall, and can administer assessments remotely, where possible.

As we look to address persistent and pandemic-exacerbated disparities in our national recovery, we have to know where the gaps in educational opportunity and achievement are. With that knowledge, we can leverage this historic federal investment from the American Rescue Plan to close them.

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