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Massachusetts needs to test students to diagnose COVID-19 learning slide

School districts won’t be able to chart a path forward without an accurate measurement of what’s been lost.

Governor Charlie Baker (center right) joins Lt. Governor Karyn Polito (right) and Principal Liz Rogers for a stop in a third-grade classroom as they tour the Bentley Academy Innovation School, where students are learning in-person, in Salem, on Feb. 4.Nicolaus Czarnecki/Pool

More than 300 days have passed since public schools in Massachusetts had to close due to the coronavirus pandemic, resorting instead to remote or hybrid learning programs that have proved inferior for many students. Yet, at least in Massachusetts, there isn’t reliable data to assess the stunted progress and outright learning loss that many students have experienced during this time.

That’s why the announcement last month that a modified version of the MCAS will be administered this year is welcome. Although the MCAS is typically a graduation requirement for individual students and a way of measuring the performance of districts, it won’t serve either of those purposes this year. Instead, state Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley told the Globe the test is needed this year to diagnose any learning deficits. “Right now we are hypothesizing that students learning exclusively remotely are probably going to have more gaps than students who are in-person [full time] or in hybrid learning. We need this data to figure that out,” he said.


Indeed, it’s a smart move to test using a modified exam — and use the results to identify the losses districts will need to address. Districts shouldn’t be held accountable for any academic deficits revealed by the tests, but those results can provide a benchmark to gauge how well districts close pandemic-related gaps in the future.

Perhaps the results will only reinforce the obvious: that the pandemic exacerbated existing socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps. Nonetheless, one can’t manage what one can’t measure correctly. The data is needed to shape districts’ recovery response post pandemic, especially given that there are hundreds of millions of dollars coming to the state as part of the latest round of economic relief to help districts and students get back on track.

“There’s about $800 million coming statewide,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. Lambert said diagnosing learning loss will be critical to determine what to do with the extra federal money. “It can be used to do summer programming, accelerated academies, intense tutoring.”


In other parts of the country, districts are starting to evaluate where students stand after months of remote learning. And some, crucially, are using the data to tailor the response. In Dallas, where school officials administered a test called the Measure of Academic Progress, or MAP, to analyze kids’ academic performance last fall, half of students lost learning in math and a third fell behind in reading. As a result, the district is seeking to add five extra weeks to the school calendar year. In Washington, D.C., similar assessments show that elementary and middle-school students fell four months behind in math and one month behind in reading. A McKinsey study revealed that white students nationwide were set back one to three months in math, but students of color fell behind three to five months.

The academic slide is only going to get worse unless districts, principals, educators, and parents get a handle on the scope of the deficit and use that evidence to plan the next steps. Meanwhile, though, teachers union leaders have been pushing for a permanent pause on standardized testing, such as the MCAS, and say they will continue to push for a legislative vehicle to get rid of the test.


That would be a huge step backwards. We only know the true extent of existing racial and income achievement gaps because of standardized testing. The MCAS has been the only consistent source of data that illuminates disparities among school districts and educational outcomes. “This [the pandemic] shouldn’t be used as an excuse to pursue an agenda that will bring us back to a time when students of color and low-income students were left behind because no one was assessing whether they were getting a quality education or not,” said Lambert.

For some, it might come across as unseemly to talk about students’ learning losses when so many lives have been lost to COVID-19. But the educational future of a whole generation of kids is at stake. The first step for districts and educators to reverse the COVID-19 slide is to learn just how bad it is.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.