Education Briefly Stated

Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020

December 09, 2020 8 min read

Reading, Math NAEP Succumbs to Surge In Cases of COVID-19

The one test that may have helped decipher how much COVID-19 has affected student learning won’t be of help after all. The head of the U.S. Department of Education’s statistical wing has postponed the 2021 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math and reading.

NAEP was scheduled to begin in early 2021. The venerable exam has gone forward, rain or shine, since the 1970s. But as it has with so many other aspects of schooling, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the testing schedule.

Federal officials pointed to two main reasons for the postponement. One: The patchwork quilt of schools offering in-person, hybrid, or all-remote learning threatened to skew the sample of students as well as the results so seriously the data might not have been useable. And two: They couldn’t ensure the safety of both testing proctors and the students who sit for the exams, which are given on shared laptops and other equipment.

“I was obviously concerned about sending outsiders into schools and possibly increasing the risk of COVID transmission,” said James Woodworth, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Federal officials had earlier acknowledged potential problems and costs of moving forward and were trying to balance that against NAEP’s important role as a national yardstick.

At a July 31 meeting, the panel that sets NAEP policy advised the NCES to move forward with preparations unless the agency determined that accurate reporting would not be possible.

Then the surge came, and with it, more schools began moving back into all-remote learning.

While the pandemic has raged for months, the national picture of learning loss is still fuzzy and incomplete. Emerging data from some commonly ad-ministered “benchmark” exams do suggest declines in student learning trajectories.

Another problem that no state or district has seemingly cracked yet is comparability of results for students attending in person versus remote or hybrid learning.

NCES officials noted that, in many states, the sample of students available to take the exam was far too small to produce results.

Religious School in Kentucky Asks Supreme Court to Rein in Governor’s Closure Orders for Schools

If college basketball games can be played and people can go see a movie, then why can’t private schools open as well? That’s what one Kentucky religious school is asking in a petition for emergency relief from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Danville Christian Academy is seeking to undo a ruling issued Nov. 29—yes, a Sunday—by a U.S. appeals court. The three-judge panel lifted an injunction issued against Gov. Andrew G. Beshear’s Nov. 18 closure order amid the resurgence of COVID-19.

The panel ruled that Danville Christian’s claims of religious discrimination were unlikely to succeed on the merits because the governor’s order was neutral and generally applicable to all K-12 schools.

One other emergency application on religious objections to state closure orders for houses of worship and schools is pending before the high court. In Robinson v. Murphy, a rabbi and a Roman Catholic priest are challenging New Jersey Gov. Philip D. Murphy’s capacity limits on houses of worship and mask mandates as they apply to religious services and schools.

Danville Academy, which is represented by the First Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based religious-liberty organization, argues that schools have been targeted for closure while almost everything else in Kentucky is open except for bars and restaurants.

“To summarize, in Kentucky, one can catch a matinee at the movie theater, tour a distillery, work out at the gym, bet at a gambling parlor, shop, go to work, cheer on the Wildcats or the Cardinals, and attend a wedding,” the filing says, adding that day-care centers and colleges remain open, too.

The school emphasized that it adopted multiple safety measures when it reopened for in-person instruction in August, including temperature checks, masks, and classroom dividers. Four students and one teacher have tested positive for COVID-19 since school opened, the filing said.

Under Beshear’s current order, public and private elementary schools were allowed to reopen for in-person instruction this week if certain local conditions are met. Middle and high schools will remain in remote learning until at least Jan. 4.

In Era of COVID-19, Add Cyberattacks to List of Vulnerabilities for School Communities

Remote learning has its risks, not the least of which are cyberattacks.

Just ask the leaders of the Baltimore County, Md., Chicago, and Seminole County, Fla., districts. All three were rattled over the Thanksgiving holiday by incidents related to internet security and privacy, as vulnerability remains high during the current pandemic-era period of increased technology use.

In Baltimore County, classes shut down the day before Thanksgiving as a result of what school officials called a “catastrophic attack on our technology systems.” Classes resumed Dec. 2. The district has been in fully remote learning mode that will last at least into January.

In Chicago, parents and elementary students were alarmed over Thanksgiving weekend when they received a series of unsavory, profanity-laced emails in their school inboxes during a 90-minute period in the morning. According to a Chicago Sun-Times report, the initial message said, “I do not know who I am. I do not know why I am here. All I know is that I must kill,” followed by a series of replies that included question marks and vulgar language.

And in Seminole County, high school students received more than 8 million racist emails with “disgusting” messages the same weekend, district officials said. District officials say the spamming effort was blocked late that Saturday, but they were still working early last week to delete all the messages. No student or district data were breached, officials said, and the effort did not disrupt any operations.

Quite the opposite for the Huntsville, Ala., district, which had to shut down last week after a ransomware attack. Teachers, for instance, were making paper lessons for students.

Baltimore County district officials confirmed the hack was a ransomware attack, too. They have been circumspect so far about the nature and extent of the breach and whether sensitive data have been compromised.

The Chicago incident, by contrast, “did not pose an information security risk or permit access to anyone outside the CPS network,” the district said. A districtwide email group had inadvertently been set to allow anyone to respond.

Former Board Members Take Denver School Board to Task

Denver’s superintendent is on her way out, and some former school board members want the reasons to come out. In a highly unusual move, 14 former members—all women—in an op-ed cite a dysfunctional board that made it impossible for Susana Cordova to execute on a clear vision for the district and contributed to her decision to leave.

Cordova, who has spent three decades in the Denver school system and has led it since 2018, unexpectedly announced last month that she planned to step down to take on the role of deputy superintendent for teaching and learning in Dallas.

The extraordinary piece, which appeared Nov. 21 on the local news site Westword, has national resonance for district leaders. It surfaces subtexts that have long complicated the school board-superintendent relationship, including gender imbalances in the upper echelons of school leadership and a lack of school board representation from communities of color.

In Denver, the former board members wrote, Cordova faced squabbling board members who were at times disrespectful, micromanaged policies, and most of all, never made clear what they specifically expected Cordova to do in leading the district.

“It is important to ask if Susana was treated differently and unfairly because she is a woman of color. We believe she was. As women and former school board members, we recognize that Susana was not treated the same as her white male predecessor,” the op-ed says.

Some current board members say the op-ed, which also suggests that she faced additional obstacles for being a Latina superintendent, mischaracterizes their work.

The signatories said their goal was not primarily to criticize but rather to pressure the board to take steps to improve its governance, set a clear vision and goals for the district, and then communicate those clearly as it embarks on a search for a new leader.

The breaking point for Cordova may have been her recent evaluation. Though rated as “meeting expectations” overall, Cordova’s lowest score was for equity. In 2018, Education Week recognized her as part of its Leaders to Learn From project for her work in that very area.

“Our worry is that they’ll move forward in a reactive way to hiring the superintendent, rather than slowing down and getting it right,” said Mary Seawell, who served as school board president from 2011 to 2013.

In Update of Texas’ Sex Ed., Birth Control Makes It In

Sex education—a controversial topic just about anywhere—got its first revision in Texas in nearly a quarter century in recent weeks.

What’s in: teaching about birth control and sexually transmitted infections to 7th and 8th graders and fertilization and sexual intercourse to 5th and 6th graders.

What’s not: references to consent, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

The results are not to everyone’s liking, but so far at least, the standards-changing process seems to have gone far more smoothly than what’s typical for Texas.

The new standards will go into effect in 2022. The board last updated the sex education curriculum in 1997.

Texas districts aren’t required to offer sex education, but if they do, they’re required by state law to emphasize abstinence.

“I know not everyone got what they wanted in this set of standards, but I would encourage them to compare this set of standards with what we began with to see there was a great deal of advancement with regard to coming up with a set of standards that I think are relevant and workable,” said Marty Rowley, a Republican board member.

But Val Benavidez, the president of the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning watchdog of the state’s education board, wasn’t satisfied.

“Arguing that it’s controversial simply to acknowledge LGBTQ people exist and deserve to be treated with respect just like everyone else is pretty damning.”

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; Stephen Sawchuk, Associate Editor; Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor; Mark Walsh, Contributing Writer; and Karen Diegmueller, Senior Contributing Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2020 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated