Will the 2021 Nation’s Report Card Be Another Coronavirus Casualty?

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 23, 2020 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The congressionally mandated tests dubbed the “Nation’s Report Card,” have measured the progress of U.S. students in reading and math for five decades, come fire, flood, and budget cuts. But the combination of a global pandemic and nationwide economic instability could throw off the 2021 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The National Assessment Governing Board, which supervises the NAEP, will hold a special session next week to gauge the prospects for administering the tests next spring, which are scheduled to cover reading and math in 4th and 8th grades.

In a May meeting, Peggy Carr, NCES’ associate commissioner, warned that it could be a heavy lift to recruit schools, train testers, and set up the test in what may be a disparate and rapidly shifting educational landscape next spring. Yet without the NAEP, the country could miss a crucial nationwide picture of just how much learning have students’ lost during the school closures and continuing disruption.

NCES would need to ask for an estimated additional $50 million to pay to administer the NAEP under social distancing and varied school schedules. Traditionally, field staff work in teams to administer the tests to 25 to 40 students at a time, in sessions that run two hours or more, depending on the subject. In 2021, the main NAEP had been scheduled to move to a new format which would require groups of students to be given an additional 30-minute session of questions to answer, which would reduce the number of schools and students needed to participate but potentially increase the amount of time students would be together in a testing room.

“It is NAEP’s job to describe educational progress, and if we are in a situation next spring ... where 90 percent of schools are open with 90 percent of their students, then I think it would be a massive lost opportunity for NAEP not to do its job as laid out in law to measure educational progress in a way that states cannot,” said Andrew Ho, NAGB board member and Harvard University education researcher.

Yet, schools are planning to start the next school year with an array of schedules, from digital learning to students taking turns by class or grade in attending school live on campus, and such social distancing is expected to still be in use next spring, at least in some “hot spots,” Carr noted.

NCES may have to hire additional test workers to cover all of the students, but it may also have a harder time recruiting, as workers would have to come into contact with children in many different sites to proctor the tests live.

“In a scenario where there’s a patchwork of instruction within and between states ... it would be very difficult to make any sorts of adjustments,” Ho said. The College Board this summer gave up on attempts to administer its college admissions test SAT at home, and even though the NAEP has moved to digitally based tests, NAGB could not provide the NAEP via distanced learning at schools. “There’d be no control over the administration conditions. You would have to rely on parents to administer at home, with video proctoring. The challenges of a conversion like that would be insurmountable.”

But pushing back the NAEP to 2022 would start the tests on a new timeline, making it harder for researchers to track what happens in the next year.

Sean Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University, uses NAEP data to track patterns of opportunity and achievement gaps across states. Reardon said he would be concerned about differences in test administrations and different response rates of students in different states, but said without NAEP, even states that are able to administer their own tests next year will not be able to compare their policies and outcomes to those in other states.

“Suppose this is not the only pandemic, or that this pandemic leads to changes in schooling that persist, on and off in different places, for more than a year,” Reardon said. “We’d like to learn from the many different responses of schools and districts what strategies are most effective for ensuring continuity of learning during school closings, online learning, etc. ... Basically, if we want to learn from the educational experiment that has been thrust upon us, then we need the best data we can [get], as soon as we can. NAEP is better positioned than any other data source to provide the highest quality data under the circumstances.”

In fact, if the tests are administered next spring, NAGB is considering adding pandemic-specific questions to the background surveys given with each test. The questions would cover aspects of the school closures; students’ access to technology and other supplies for remote learning; teacher and school preparation for distance-learning and parent involvement in students’ education at home.

NAEP’s older, long-term-trend assessment in reading and math still will provide information about students from just before the pandemic; NCES completed its administration just before nationwide school closures this spring. Results from that test are scheduled to be released next spring, while the main NAEP’s 12th grade results in those subjects are set to be released this fall.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.