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Cecilia and Ruben Maldonado, both 8, do school work at their home in Timnath on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Their mother, Jacqueline Maldonado, is trying to keep as much structure in their days at home as possible. “If I don’t keep them on a time frame, then it’s mayhem,” she said. (Valerie Mosley/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Just how much knowledge Colorado students gained, retained or lost during a school year disrupted by a pandemic — and how their knowledge base changes over summer — is one giant guessing game. 

Education advocates are determined to get answers.

Education groups are urging the Colorado Department of Education to invest federal coronavirus relief money in a statewide assessment that would measure students’ academic standing in the fall.

Ten Colorado education organizations wrote a letter to Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes on Monday, pressing her to help schools and teachers have a more effective start to the 2020-21 school year. They asked the department to provide schools with a diagnostic assessment that would help them understand how their students were affected by changes forced by the coronavirus. 

Leaders of those organizations fear that students have suffered significant learning losses after having to abruptly transition to remote learning to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. If schools want their kids to recover academically, the leaders say, they have to know where kids are at with course content at the start of the school year.

Jacqueline Maldonado checks her son’s homework as her daughter does an online math lesson at their home in Timnath on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Maldonado started homeschooling her 8-year-old twins, Cecilia and Ruben, this week when they would have returned to school after Spring Break. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We understand based on local district feedback that many students have been deeply affected by the health, economic and social turmoil over the last four months,” the letter stated. “While districts across the state stepped up to meet the challenges of educating their students through diverse remote learning models, specialized online curricula, created drive-through breakfast/ lunch programs, and provided distance social-emotional supports, the outcomes of these choices are unknown.”

As students head back to school, “thoughtful and meaningful collaborations to retool and reorganize existing models will require clear, actionable data to assess the impact of prolonged school closures on student achievement,” the letter said. Those who signed the letter represent a spectrum of education advocates across partisan lines: A+ Colorado; African Leadership Group; Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy, & Research Organization; Colorado Succeeds; Democrats for Education Reform; Education Reform Now Colorado; Independence Institute; Ready Colorado; Stand for Children Colorado; and Transform Education Now.

The organizations want Anthes and CDE to fund a diagnostic assessment with money allocated to the department from the federal CARES Act. CDE can draw from a pool of about $12 million reserved from federal grant dollars to use for emergency needs to address issues related to COVID-19.

Organization leaders envision using a diagnostic assessment already created by a private vendor. The cost to administer such a test to Colorado’s more than 900,000 public school students would be at least a few million dollars, Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, estimates.

It will have been 18 months since students were last tested with state assessments and it’s likely that schools don’t have a handle on where many students sit academically, Schoales said.

“It’s really critical that when students come back to school that we know where they are,” he said, particularly what they’re capable of in math and literacy “so that we can target instruction around their particular needs.”

School districts on their own may be planning to start the academic year with diagnostic assessments. But they also understand that different schools and districts have different levels of capacity. Without a state effort, Schoales said, “there will be a patchwork around the state.”

He added that different diagnostics vary in quality and that not all districts and schools have the capacity to figure out effective diagnostics.

He said the state should foot the bill for a diagnostic assessment because it mandates that districts and schools support kids to reach a set of standards, and so it seems appropriate that the state should provide tools for districts to help them meet those established goals.

Anthes has received the letter from the band of education groups, said CDE spokeswoman Dana Smith.

Katy Anthes

In an email, Smith said that CDE is aware that many districts arrange their own diagnostic assessments.

“While this didn’t come up as a strong need when we did the surveys to better understand districts’ needs, we are exploring this idea with (the) board, districts and other stakeholders,” Smith said.

Among the districts charging forward with their own diagnostic assessments is Harrison School District 2 in Colorado Springs, where Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel said students in grades K-8 will be assessed through an exam from the company i-Ready while high school students will take a mock PSAT/SAT assessment developed by the district.

Birhanzel sees real value in benchmarking students’ skills, particularly this year because of COVID-19.

She also endorses an assessment funded by CDE, especially for the sake of smaller, more rural districts that may not have the budget to invest in a diagnostic assessment.

However, she said it should not be used as an accountability measure that could result in negative consequences for districts. “It needs to stay a diagnostic,” she said, “that’s the purpose of it.”

The organizations, in their letter, spell out that the assessment should not be used “for accountability purposes.”

Widespread concerns about kids falling behind 

Luke Ragland, president of conservative education organization ReadyCO, doesn’t see how it would be possible to forge ahead in the school year without first gauging where students are at academically.

He compares moving forward without an assessment to “trying to build a house without an architectural plan” or “trying to go on a road trip without a map.”

Schools could start off the year like they normally would, with some kids having lost a quarter of learning, Ragland said, “but if we do care about recovering from the academic losses sustained during (COVID-19), then we have to know where kids are at now so that we know where those losses are.”

All students were pushed into remote learning without an alternative, which might not have suited their learning styles or strengths, Ragland said.

Giselle Molina works from home on school assignments during the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Her mother, Dalia Molina, helps with an assignment. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“We are going to see dramatic divergence between different groups of students, and the most important thing that we have to have as a tool is understanding where those gaps are,” he said.

He warns that students face “potentially lifelong impacts” from being taken out of classrooms for an extended period.

Ragland and other education advocates are especially concerned for underserved groups of students. “This is important for every kid for sure, but it’s imperative for kids who are the most needy,” he said.

Prateek Dutta, Colorado policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, sounds an alarm on the potential for “the widening of achievement gaps,” especially among students with disabilities, English language learners, students living in poverty, and students of color.

Dutta said the stakes are high for vulnerable groups of students, who risk long-term struggles if educators can’t catch them up. But he’s also confident in schools’ ability to get their students on the right learning track.

“We could solve this,” Dutta said. “I trust principals and educators to solve this potential worsening of educational outcomes, but they need to have data first.” 

Erica Breunlin

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin