How Covid-19 Crushed America’s Ed System

Spring has traditionally been abuzz with activity for teachers, students and the education sector. State and year-end assessments, college admissions, and even touchstone events like prom and college tours have long energized the spring months on campuses across America.

The coronavirus, of course, has upended all of it. Some are calling it a lost season. Others are beginning to wonder how the pandemic will shape education in both the near and long terms. Will schools and colleges return to something resembling normalcy?

In many ways, the school situation resembles the challenges posed by “reopening” states as the COVID pandemic curve flattens and falls. No one is sure yet what will work, for how long and, if certain measures fail, what the alternatives might be. Certainly, the incredible events of just the last few weeks suggest the American education system has entered strange new waters. As of May 1, 43 states, four territories, and the District of Columbia have either closed school buildings or have recommended that schools be closed for the rest of the year, forcing an estimated 45 million public school children to stay home.

For nearly two decades, nothing in education has been as predictable and as rigid as state testing regimens. Federal law requires states to test students annually in grades three to eight, and at least once in high school. But as the K-12 school year nears its end across the country, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education have received waivers from the Education Department to either suspend or abandon statewide standardized testing for 2020.

Even in test happy Texas, the state on which the federal government modeled its testing and accountability requirements, officials acknowledged in mid-March that state exams could not be administered amid such uncertainty and concern for public safety. Said Education Commissioner Mike Morath: “Waiv[ing] the STAAR testing requirement allows schools the maximum flexibility to remain focused on public health while also investing in the capacity to support student learning remotely.”

But even though a federal waiver allows all states to cancel testing without facing financial consequences, questions remain as to how student performance will be assessed. In the U.S., some states have switched to pass/fail grading. New Mexico, for example, is offering guidance to districts scrapping A-F grading systems for middle and high schools, and the Palo Alto, CA, school district has done the same. Differentiating instruction for diverse learners is going to be complicated (although it really shouldn’t be).

Some experts predict that the coronavirus will push more colleges to adopt “test optional” admissions policies, a trend that was already accelerating before the pandemic. 

Other districts are leaving assessments up to teacher discretion. In Washington, D.C., schools that offer end-of-year language exams are advising teachers to make due with partial scores or offer individual at-home exams they can monitor and proctor.

Focusing on students with disabilities, the U.S. Department of Education published a fact sheet on how schools should manage evaluations for special education. They recommend that evaluations and Individual Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 meetings and reviews should still take place remotely. If, however, evaluations or reviews require an in-person observation or assessment, school districts are permitted to delay the process.

Some assessment experts, including Juan D’Brot, suggest that districts can play an important role in pulling together quality diagnostic tools, but finer-gained, teacher-adapted tools are likely to be most helpful for teachers and schools. Case in point: New Orleans, post Hurricane Katrina. Schools in that city found that conventional diagnostic assessments didn’t always work for students who’d been traumatized by the natural disaster and were returning to their schools at different times. Instead, those schools had to continually assess students and shift placement and curriculum accordingly. One size, they learned, does not fit all.

Not surprisingly, states are also tweaking high school graduation requirements to enable seniors to get their diplomas on time. New York state, for instance, cancelled the June sitting for its Regents subject-specific exams, allowing instead for passing grades in those subjects to suffice.  The College Board created a “streamlined” at-home exam for each AP course that only covers materials through the beginning of March. At just 45 minutes, the new tests are considerably shorter than the traditional two-to-three-hour exams, and it’s unclear if universities will accept scores from the new tests for college credit.

For this year’s class of rising seniors, the college admissions landscape is equally muddled. The College Board and ACT have postponed their near-term dates for the SAT and ACT. SAT and SAT subject tests have been moved from June to August, and the College Board has suggested that, if schools remain online in the fall, an at-home SAT test could be rolled out at that time.

The feasibility of “at-home” SAT tests is being questioned, however. Critics raise the specter of cheating (having parents or other adults help students), of privacy (if the College Board uses invasive software to prevent cheating) and of fairness. Regarding the latter, it is doubtful that conditions for testing would be equal across the board. Disadvantaged students, for example, may not have adequate internet connections or have to use family computers not located in test-conducive environments.

From kindergarten to grad school, the coronavirus has virtually shuttered the American education system, exposing its flaws and inequities. 

Some experts predict that the coronavirus will push more colleges to adopt “test optional” admissions policies, a trend that was already accelerating before the pandemic. On Twitter, student activists are using these unusual circumstances to push the #TestOptionalNow hashtag and demand an end to admissions tests which, studies have shown, are biased and don’t accurately predict a student’s collegiate success.

Already, roughly half of the nation’s 2,400 four-year colleges do not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. Since March, roughly 60 colleges have announced at least a temporary move to test-optional admissions, according to the Boston Globe. The anti-testing group FairTest counts Cornell University, Tufts University, Boston University, Northeastern University, Middlebury College, and the University of California system, as among the most notable institutions to forgo admissions tests amid the pandemic.

Beyond the admissions questions, it’s not even clear yet whether colleges will open in September or how deeply they’ll have to cut services in order to make up for a springtime of lost revenue. Some institutions have boldly said that not only will they welcome students back to campus as usual, but that they also intend to host events like football games. On the flip side, more than a few college counselors are advising their clients to take a gap year and not rush into any decisions amid such uncertainty. The young people appear to be listening: 30 percent of students surveyed by Junior Achievement USA said COVID-19 is impacting their expected college starting date, while 27 percent responded that they now plan to work.

One thing that seems certain to hit colleges in the fall are budget cuts, as the economic impact on state budgets seems to worsen with each passing week. Stanford University has asked departments to develop plans for a 10-percent drop in general funds and a 15-percent drop in endowment payout. Johns Hopkins University has already announced that it will suspend contributions to employee retirement accounts, reduce salaries and prepare for furloughs and layoffs as it confronts a potential $100-million hole in its budget. The Wall Street Journal called the coronavirus “a breaking point” for the nation’s institutions of higher education.

Internationally, meanwhile, various countries are taking steps similar to those taken by the states. China, for instance, has delayed its college entrance exam until July because of fears of a second coronavirus wave, and Britain has canceled its national examinations, opting instead for a “calculated grade process” that takes into account non-exam assessments. Whether international students will even be able to travel to the U.S. for the start of the academic year is still unknown. And if they can, will they want to come? Their absence would represent another significant financial blow to colleges, which have become increasingly dependent on their tuition to grow and sustain services.

From kindergarten to grad school, the coronavirus has virtually shuttered the American education system, exposing its flaws and inequities. Perhaps what emerges from the pandemic will be systems that recognize the need for comprehensive student support and a society that more readily affirms the essential role that schools and teachers play in our communities.

Or, maybe we go back to business as usual. Time will tell.

​-Ulrich Boser

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