The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. school test results are coming. Here’s what we should do with them.

Teacher Faven Habte talks with Principal Sah Brown at Eastern High School in D.C. on Jan. 22, 2021, as schools were preparing to welcome students back to the classroom. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Jessica Sutter is the president of the D.C. State Board of Education.

The calendar says a new school year is about to begin. But looking at the data, it is clear that the challenges our students, schools and families have faced over the past two years remain the same.

Learning, social engagement and development and the joy of developing and pursuing passions, were all affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Because of the pandemic, D.C. kept nearly all students out of school for most of 2021 and passed on the opportunity to assess our students that year. As a result, we have yet to get a full accounting of the academic fallout.

But that accounting is on its way. Soon, D.C. will release the results from the spring 2022 administration of the PARCC exam, the statewide assessment given annually (until the coronavirus interruption) to understand the state of achievement and opportunity gaps. Based on new research from EmpowerK12, the results are likely to paint a grim picture. The EmpowerK12 data shows and the forthcoming PARCC scores are likely to confirm big declines in grade-level performance with Black, Latino, low-income and students with disabilities losing the most progress over the past two years. On average, students might be as much as 11 instructional months behind the progress they would have made otherwise, according to the EmpowerK12 analysis.

In light of this stark reality, some will argue against the continued administration of these assessments. Others will contend that this pandemic-driven slide is reason to abandon the educational improvement strategies that have yielded higher achievement, great opportunity and growing enrollment in our public schools. These arguments are simply wrong. What’s more, they are frequently made in bad faith — the latest in a long line of efforts to turn the clock back on the hard work of D.C. educators, leaders, students and communities.

Contrary to the arguments made by critics of D.C.'s education improvement strategies, the interrupted learning and social disconnection experienced by students (and staff) are not excuses to end such assessments of student learning. Rather, they are the precise reasons we must continue to assess all students.

We have an obligation to know what is happening with student learning overall and the state of opportunity gaps specifically. To address a problem, you must measure and understand it first. Doing otherwise would be to take a head-in-the-sand approach, jettisoning the evidence-based, research-proven strategies for better student outcomes.

What do we do with what we know? And what do we do once the PARCC scores are released?

First, we work to serve students, not point fingers or find someone to blame. The pandemic has been a prolonged trauma for all of us — children, families, educators, school leaders. We need to work together to identify what our families, schools and communities need and then collectively deliver those resources and supports.

Second, we need to embrace what we learned during the pandemic about how we can support students in new and uniquely responsive ways. Despite the fact that schools responded rapidly to the widely divergent experiences and resources of their diverse student bodies during the pandemic — providing computers, tablets, hotspots, etc. — too many students returned to classrooms with a one-size-fits-all approach to learning. Some schools have embraced the lessons of the past two years, including the critical importance of differentiated support for learning needs and traumatic experiences. We should look at these standout schools, study their effective practices and provide the support for both D.C. Public Schools and public charter schools to adapt them to their contexts.

Third, we must listen to what students, families and educators are telling us they need. On a school level, staff are still stretched thin dealing with the new challenges wrought by the coronavirus. We’ll need to continue to fund our schools at levels that allow them to respond to the additional needs of students. Parents are clear that they need more information and clearer communication about how their children are doing in school.

Fourth, students and families are also clear that we need more high-quality mental health support, clinicians and services in our schools. Again, here, too, we have made progress that can be built on. D.C.'s planned study of school-based mental health services next year will be vital to building the future of that system. But we need to ensure that parents are made aware of what specific mental health supports are available at their children’s schools and how to connect with them. A system is only as good as how those it intends to serve can access it.

And finally, we know that reliable transportation continues to be a challenge for students, too many of whom continue to miss days or even weeks of school because of problems with transportation. Whether by expanding bus routes, ensuring more reliable Metro service or creating and supporting new ways for students to arrive safely at the schoolhouse door, we need leadership from the top of government to get our kids back in the classroom and learning.

These are just a few steps we can take today to sustain and strengthen the nascent recovery of our students. But we need to take them together, with a spirit of collaboration and conviction that the young people of our city deserve the very best of our combined efforts and know-how.