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A call for accountability in Maryland’s mishandling of education amid the pandemic | COMMENTARY

A Florida fifth grader answers a math problem on i-Ready, a diagnostic for math and language arts that pinpoints skills that are lacking. Maryland also uses i-Ready to assess student learning. (Maria Lorenzino/Sun Sentinel)
A Florida fifth grader answers a math problem on i-Ready, a diagnostic for math and language arts that pinpoints skills that are lacking. Maryland also uses i-Ready to assess student learning. (Maria Lorenzino/Sun Sentinel) (Maria Lorenzino / Sun Sentinel)

This year’s failures of Maryland’s educational establishment will soon be on display. Newly-passed House Bill 1372 requires all school districts to use standardized testing (independently validated, traditional and computer-adapted tests) that will assess learning loss due to COVID-related school closures. This testing is an important first step toward creating accountability for the state’s disastrously mishandled school year and healing the damage that it has caused.

Nationwide standardized tests have already illuminated many of the failures of online learning. The spring 2020 school closures contributed to unusually steep declines in fall 2020 MAP scores, particularly in math. Similarly, the fall 2020 DIEBLS tests show 15% more K-3 children were reading below grade level than in 2019. By the winter, scores tanked further, with the youngest learners performing the worst. Both kindergarteners and first graders had a 65% increase over 2019 in “being at great risk for not learning to read,” with Black and Latinx students the furthest behind. Immediate interventions are imperative: a pre-pandemic report from the American Federation of Teachers finds that a poor reader in grade 1 has a 90% chance of remaining a poor reader.

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These results are tragic but unsurprising. A recent Dutch study finds students make little to no gains while learning from home, even for short school closures under ideal circumstances. Maryland’s circumstances are far from ideal. As Maryland has provided the least live instruction of any state this year and in some districts has drastically cut the math curriculum, the state’s students may be faring among the worst in the country. The doubling and even tripling of failing grades give hints of the scale of the damage.

Testing is essential for measuring learning loss and for determining how to reverse it. Many counties are planning to offer tutoring and live instruction this summer and testing in the spring would help to identify which students need nudging into these programs and subjects that should be prioritized for intervention. These offerings will have to be part of years of remediation to teach material covered too quickly, too poorly or simply never taught. Test results may also give pause to counties planning to divert limited staff and resources to permanent virtual academies. Communities need to know how poorly online education works before they invest further resources into these costly and logistically demanding programs.

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Predictably, the same authorities that demanded these extended school closures, despite a deluge of early studies and reports indicating that schools could be reopened safely, are now the ones calling for the cancelation of the tests and applying for waivers from state testing standards. Their cries that tests would be inaccurate, exacerbate inequality and stigmatize students are crocodile tears. Marylanders can see how transparently self-serving this is, a ploy by the teachers’ unions and local leadership to avoid political accountability for the damage they have wrought by keeping schools closed.

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Testing is necessary to know how our students are performing and where to deploy limited resources. We cannot reward the decision to mutilate the school year with an exemption from measuring the extent of the damage done by that decision. The inevitably embarrassing test results will show the consequences of choices made by districts in spite of ample evidence that reopening schools was safe and feasible, a lesson Marylanders should take to the ballot box.

While testing is critical, we do not need to wait for those results to know exactly what needs to happen this minute: Students need an immediate, full, five-day-a-week return to classrooms. Districts must immediately end indefensible policies like hybrid learning, waitlists for live instruction, and “weekend Wednesdays” (a day containing little to no live or even remote instruction). This crisis is straining our children’s natural resilience. Recent studies show COVID-related learning loss is causing unprecedented declines in college enrollment and projections indicate it may lower lifetime earnings and even reduce life expectancy.

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Tragically, Maryland’s obstructionist bureaucrats need the solution spelled out that the recovery process starts with full-time, in-person learning, which would incidentally also free up plenty of time for testing. Barriers have been lifted to accomplish this. Staff and many high schoolers have been vaccinated, and the CDC has authorized schools to use 3 feet of distancing, massively expanding classroom capacity. Yet many of Maryland’s districts are acting as though full reopening is impossible. Tests are critical, but a positive mindset and willingness to work to resume full time live instruction is also needed to repair Maryland’s education crisis. As I tell my kids: The trick is to try.

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Margery Smelkinson (msmelkinson@gmail.com) is an immunology and infectious disease expert who has advised local non-profits in COVID-19 related public health strategies. Her research has focused on many pathogens, including influenza and SARS-CoV2. She is also a leader in Together Again MCPS.

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