May 27, 2020

By Nicholas Munyan-Penney and Charles Barone

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Starting the next school year with diagnostic assessments is a straightforward way to gain critical data after unprecedented disruptions to instruction, a solution recently endorsed by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents in a new set of re-opening recommendations, as well as by the Maryland State Superintendent and the Louisiana Department of Education. Diagnostic assessments, administered statewide, are well-suited to this task because they can:

• Provide actionable data on a very short timeline; most tests can generate performance reports immediately after students complete assessments;

• Inform individual remediation;

• Define small groups for building missing skills and knowledge;

• Provide an overall picture of a class or school’s achievement levels so educators can determine if they are able to start with grade-level content or need to incorporate missed content from the previous year; and,

• Empower teachers to use the limited time—due to potentially reduced school hours—in a more targeted way to meet student’s individualized needs.

In addition to providing educators with critical information for restarting instruction, the data from statewide diagnostic assessments could help determine the impact of various types of distance learning on student achievement: Did districts that acted swiftly see fewer learning declines than districts that were slower to respond? Did providing internet connectivity and/or devices make a difference? Are some types of distance learning and homeschooling more effective than others? If states and districts publicly report their diagnostic assessment data, education researchers can work to answer these important questions. Given the possibility of similar learning disruptions in the future, understanding the effectiveness of distance learning practices is an integral part of developing preparedness strategies.

Furthermore, opting for common statewide diagnostic assessments will allow comparability across districts that would be impossible if each district in a state chooses its own tests. However, these data shouldn’t be used for anything that could be characterized as “high-stakes,” such as accountability or teacher evaluations. Doing so will likely undermine efforts to ensure teachers and school leaders use data to address student learning loss.

While ERN supports the use of diagnostic assessments, this brief is not a formal endorsement of any of the assessments included. Rather we are presenting information on a range of options for states and districts.

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