Education Briefly Stated

Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021

January 13, 2021 8 min read

Virus Surge or Not, ELLs Must Return to School for Testing

As if they didn’t already have several strikes against them, especially during this season of the pandemic, millions of English-language-learners are now being asked to return to schools to take federally required English-language-proficiency exams amid the national surge in coronavirus cases.

That’s because WIDA, which provides tests to 36 states, several U.S. territories, and the Bureau of Indian Education, has concerns about the validity of a take-home test and students’ access to technology and the internet. The English Language Proficiency Assessment for the 21st Century (ELPA21) consortium, which includes eight states, also will not offer a remote option for its English-proficiency test.

“My job as a test director, is to say that the score you get from our assessment means the same thing that it meant last year, that gives you the same information so that you can make a choice and decision about a student’s proficiency,” said H. Gary Cook, the senior director of assessment for WIDA. “I have a really hard time understanding how we can get a score that’s comparable to the score that’s not remote.”

Advocates in at least two states, Colorado and Florida, say it is unfair and potentially dangerous to ask English-learners—most of whom are Latino, Asian, and Black—to return to school buildings while COVID-19 cases sweep through their communities.

The reliance on in-person testing is “far too risky and potentially life threatening” and “raises serious discrimination concerns,” Jorge Garcia, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, wrote this month in a letter to Colorado education Commissioner Katy Anthes.

Despite the requests, the Colorado and Florida education departments have indicated they will proceed with testing. If they didn’t, they and other states run the risk of losing federal funding for failing to enforce federal standardized-testing requirements.

In response to concerns about health and safety protocols, WIDA developed guidelines on how to administer its tests during the pandemic. While having data to gauge how students have progressed or regressed is valuable, Cook acknowledged that requiring students to return to class does carry risks.

Will the Coronavirus Hobble Yet Another Survey of National Education Data? Response Rate Is Low

What if a whole school year went by without yielding any source of rich federal education data? That just might happen.

The disruption to schooling caused by COVID-19 may undermine one of federal and state policymakers’ key windows into what is happening in education on the ground.

The National Teacher and Principal Survey, run by the National Center for Education Statistics, is the last for NCES this school year—and the latest to be hindered by instability across schools since last spring.

“Response rates are lower across the board,” said Maura Spiegelman, the study director for the survey program.

The study is usually conducted in September. But this year, many schools started far later because of the coronavirus and shut down periodically throughout the fall. IES did not begin contacting schools until October. It’s also been harder to reach principals of some 10,000 public and 3,000 private schools and 50,000 teachers for the sample.

NCES has pinned more data needs than usual on the survey, last conducted in 2017-18. The center has already canceled or delayed almost all its surveys, because they would cause too much of a burden on educators or because NCES staff cannot safely go to schools to conduct them. In November, the agency postponed the National Assessment for Education Progress set for 2021.

If significantly fewer teachers and principals respond to the survey, it may not be able to provide reliable state-level data for understanding district needs and differences in how teachers and principals are coping with instruction during the pandemic.

“It’s really the Department of Education’s primary source of information about K-12 schools directly from the perspective of staff in those schools, and we collect information that’s not available from other sources,” Spiegelman said.

NCES collects in-depth information on school structure, teacher background, training, pay, professional development, class size, and other issues. Data are often used to shape state and federal education policies and budgets. This year, the survey includes questions about how schools are adapting instruction for remote learning, changes in school nurses as well as mental-health support staff, and other pandemic-specific topics.

Concept of a Nationwide Tutoring Program Gains Traction, Especially in Light of Virus Learning Loss

A “pay it forward” system of tutoring—recent college graduates who tutor high school students, college students who tutor middle schoolers, and so on down to elementary school—just might be the linchpin behind what researchers envision as a federally funded effort to expand tutoring.

The cost? Perhaps about $5 billion to $15 billion annually, concludes a new research paper that sketches out a blueprint to make a 100-hour tutoring program embedded in the school day a reality for thousands of students.

In the past six months, researchers have coalesced around the idea of a national tutoring corps as a way to address what’s expected to be widespread regression in learning because of the variable quality of remote instruction and sporadic attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research on one-to-one or one-to-small-group tutoring consistently finds robust effects in both reading and math, even when using paraprofessionals or trained college students.

A Johns Hopkins researcher recently proposed a Marshall Plan for tutoring funded partly through federal Title I aid for needy students. A recently announced project out of Brown University is using a network of pilot sites to study tutoring protocols to improve training and resources. Philanthropies have funded some local demonstration programs. Nations, including Great Britain and the Netherlands, have plowed some state funding into tutoring programs.

Still, “We have very little understanding of even what it would look like to scale tutoring, let alone what it would cost. And without that information, it’s really hard to have a constructive conversation or debate about whether ... it’s even possible,” said Matthew Kraft, one of the paper’s authors.

Scaling, in particular, is a huge concern here. The K-12 landscape is full of efforts that had strong effects in small-scale studies but lighter impacts after rapid growth. The reasons for that falloff in effectiveness run the gamut, including less fidelity to implementation.

The paper from Kraft and Grace T. Falken amounts to a sophisticated thought experiment to try to avoid some of those pitfalls.

Trump’s Science-Board Picks Irk Experts, Who Question Lack of Research Experience

Looks like Congress and members of the education research community are finally getting what they wanted, sort of.

In the waning days of his term, President Donald Trump has named eight new members to four-year terms on the National Board for Education Sciences—most of whom have few if any ties to K-12 education.

The choices are drawing criticism from education research groups, even though they fill a long-standing void for the field.

For lack of a quorum, resulting from expiring and vacant seats, the board’s work basically ground to a halt under the current administration. Institute for Education Sciences Director Mark Schneider was even called on the carpet by Congress because lack of the board significantly delayed setting new research priorities.

While the board still has four open seats, the new members would allow it to restart advisory work required by Congress. According to the IES, they must complete financial and ethics clearance, and no board meeting has been scheduled. Also, Congress has not updated the Education Sciences Reform Act, which governs IES and the advisory board.

Education experts are protesting the nominees’ lack of education research experience and questioned their connections to the president.

Felice Levine, the executive director of the American Educational Research Association, said: “Serving on the IES’ board is about giving scientific advice in a nonbiased way on where priorities for research and investments should be. The capacity of those members to provide independent and expert advice is very, very central to that.

”Only one nominee holds a post in K-12 education—with private schools. Among the others are a political science lecturer who served in the Trump administration; a representative of the federal Small Business Administration’s office of advocacy whose husband was chief operating officer for Trump’s re-election campaign; a finance professor; an economics professor; a retired history professor who has written books favorable to Trump; and a law professor who penned the so-called “torture memos” during President George W. Bush’s tenure, which laid out justification for enhanced interrogations.

“Since its founding, IES has prided itself on being nonpartisan, as any federal research agency or department should be,” said Michele McLaughlin, the president of the Knowledge Alliance, which represents research groups.

“This most recent round of appointments to the National Board of Education Sciences, which advises IES, is beyond disappointing and highly partisan.”

In Memoriam: Michele Molnar, EdWeek Writer and Editor

Michele Molnar, an insightful journalist and student of the education industry who was known among friends and colleagues for her kindness and good humor, died Dec. 12 after a lengthy battle with cancer.

She was 66.

Molnar joined Education Week seven years ago as a reporter, and she helped launch EdWeek Market Brief, a business publication and intelligence service, two years later.

During her time as a staff writer and an associate editor for EdWeek Market Brief, Molnar’s reporting spanned many topics, from stories about teaching and learning in the nation’s classrooms to examinations of the leadership of some of the most prominent education companies in the world.

Molnar wrote extensively about the challenges that education companies face in trying to pursue innovation and achieve profitability.

She also wrote with verve about many topics outside the education industry, such as efforts to bring nontraditional candidates into the teaching profession. (For more, go to www.edweek.org/molnar)

Sean Cavanagh, Managing Editor, EdWeek Market Brief; Corey Mitchell, Associate Editor; Stephen Sawchuk, Associate Editor; Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor; Madeline Will, Staff Writer; and Karen Diegmueller, Senior Contributing Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated