Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nearly one year ago, in March 2020, our schools—like our nation itself—were caught off-guard by the sudden catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures that were necessary to help contain the virus. Our educators and school teams quickly shifted gears. Within weeks, all public schools in New Orleans offered virtual or distance learning to all students. Our educators, students, and families have been dedicated and steadfast about their work in school, all while coping with the pandemic outside of it. They have done truly phenomenal work in stunningly difficult conditions.

The 2020-2021 school year started again at a distance, but by mid-October, all students had the option of attending in-person at least part-time, with stringent safety precautions. Schools are dedicated to ensuring that, whether online or in classrooms, students receive a high-quality education. They have done so despite facing many challenges, from students and teachers having to learn new instruction platforms, to insufficient access to technology for all students, and repeated school closures due to a busy hurricane season.

Given these and other unique challenges schools faced this year, our national, state, and local communities have been discussing how schools can best understand what students have learned and what schools have taught. Usually, states and schools use standardized tests as one tool for this. They are incomplete and imperfect tools, of course, but they can be useful in understanding schools’ or students’ progress.

Federal choices

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to develop annual school and district assessment, accountability, and public reporting systems, codified in an “ESSA plan” that is then approved by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE). A key component of Louisiana’s current ESSA plan is using student test results to develop “school performance scores” (SPS) and correlating “letter grades” that factor in both absolute performance and progress students make over time, among other academic factors, such as graduation rate. Louisiana publicly reports this school-level data as well as disaggregated data by subgroups for each school. In New Orleans, this information is used for important charter school accountability decisions, such as whether or not a charter school can renew its charter contract and continue to operate.

The USDOE has the ability to allow waivers for many ESSA provisions, and last year, due to the pandemic, they did just that by granting blanket waivers to all states to cancel tests and subsequent accountability and reporting requirements. As the federal administration recently changed under President Biden, states have eagerly been awaiting guidance from USDOE on what, if any flexibilities or waivers would be allowed again this year.

USDOE recently released guidance to answer these questions about assessments and accountability for the 2020-21 school year. The USDOE is requiring all states to administer assessments this school year and maintain all public reporting requirements, except those related to accountability.

However, USDOE is allowing flexibility as to how assessments are administered and how their results are used. They are inviting states to submit requests to waive certain requirements that would allow states to:

  • Offer shortened versions of assessments, extend the testing window, and offer remote administration where feasible;

  • Lift the usual requirement that a minimum of 95% of students participate in state assessments; and

  • Not give school or district ratings or quality labels, such as School Performance Scores and Letter Grades.

Parents, students, educators, and all those who work in schools understand that the challenges of this school year will impact test results. But NSNO agrees that, despite the limitations, having students take the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) in 2021 is vital in understanding what students need in the coming year, and determining which educational strategies worked and which did not. Testing can also help schools and states set a new “baseline” of where students as a whole are starting the new school year.

State decisions

In October, prior to this federal guidance, the Louisiana Legislature passed a bill giving the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) the authority to make necessary changes to calculating District and School Performance Scores (DPS and SPS) for the 2020-2021 school year. The bill also allows the State Superintendent to request approval from USDOE to waive letter grades for the 2020-2021 school year, if he believes issuing letter grades would be detrimental. The Legislature also mandated that this year’s student test results cannot be used in student grade promotion decisions or teacher evaluations. The LDOE has made additional changes, including pushing back the state testing window to later in the spring and allowing flexibility in how and where tests are administered.

However, given the new USDOE guidance, the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) may submit a waiver request to the USDOE to change these policies and/or further adjust this year’s accountability requirements. In doing so, BESE and LDOE must consider whether test data will be reliable this year. They must also consider if it will accurately measure student performance and the negative impacts of the pandemic. Further, they should consider how to make sure this data is helpful, not harmful, for our students and educators, who have been working incredibly hard.

In doing so, we urge LDOE to:

  • Prioritize secure testing for as many students as possible, in a safe, healthy environment, whether that is at a school or off-site;

  • Provide clear, helpful, and accurate information for parents, schools, and teachers on the results of this year’s assessments; and

  • Ensure individual students are not harmed or held back by assessments or accountability decisions, particularly this year’s high school seniors. 

What this means for New Orleans

BESE’s decisions about accountability have broad implications and raise important questions for schools here in New Orleans. These include:

  • How will parents be able to use the information LDOE provides to understand their school’s performance and/or make decisions on where to enroll their children?

  • How will NOLA-PS use (or not use) accountability or test results information to make charter renewal decisions for the 15 charter schools considered for renewal this fall?

NSNO’s Role

NSNO will continue to work closely with state and local leaders, as well as education advocacy groups and accountability and instruction experts. We will continue to support the educators doing the incredibly hard work of teaching itself. We need to ensure that any decisions made around testing truly benefit students and schools. We know that testing can be stressful for some of our children as well as educators and it must be used carefully and thoughtfully. We are hopeful that, together, we get a clear sense of the progress children have made this year in a way that feels collaborative, fair, and productive.

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