Parents are at their wits' end. Teachers are struggling with instructing through screens. Students are a mix of frustrated, bored and overwhelmed. They all miss the connections that come from in-person instruction inside of classrooms.
Add one more thing that’s missing with the coronavirus pandemic: accountability.
The key to tracking how schools are doing — and how billions of taxpayers' dollars are being spent in Oregon schools — is data.
Oregon has reported that information and more down to the school level, on an annual basis, for years. But none of it is available for last school year, and it’s not clear what might be available this year, blowing an enormous hole in public understanding of the state’s public schools.
Report cards with nothing to report
Oregon education officials released the state’s “At-a-glance” school and district report cards Thursday, but Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill acknowledged in an interview this week that the reports have almost no new information.
Gill breaks the missing data into three parts.
“One is the state right assessment results. And that’s of course because students didn’t participate last spring,” Gill explained.
Oregon’s Smarter Balanced tests, administered every spring for students in third through eighth grades and once in high school, were canceled last year.
The second missing element is attendance.
“We shifted towards really just ensuring that students and their educators are engaging every day, and not an accountability focus on attendance, but really a focus on attendance that’s more about social-emotional, mental health and meeting academically,” Gill said.
“So we’re not using it for accountability.”
With courses becoming pass/incomplete in most cases, and often not meeting in real-time at all, “attendance” became an elusive aspect to track. So the state has mostly let schools off the hook.
It’s also difficult to measure class sizes. If you aren’t convening students in classrooms and teachers aren’t regularly interacting with students remotely either, you don’t have classes whose size you can measure. Class size is a metric that teachers and parents monitor closely to ensure students can get individualized attention and teachers aren’t being stretched too thin. But that wasn’t measured last year.
“That’s because of the shift to online schools,” Gill said.
The information that is contained in this year’s report cards is not exactly new. The reports include on-time graduation rates from 2019, but those figures first came out nine months ago. The reports have student and staff demographic data, but it dates back a year to October 2019. It’s normally updated in May.
Doubts surround future school data
The same factors that kept key data from this year’s reports are still in effect now: students are largely learning at home via “comprehensive distance learning” rather than in schools. What does that mean for the return of key data for supervising schools?
“I think that that’s yet to be determined,” Gill said.
Like seemingly everything else on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, the answer depends largely on when and how schools will reopen for students, and that relies on public health metrics.
“Our hope is that we can return more and more students to in-person instruction, and that is happening in different parts of the state,” Gill noted. “That transition will tell us a lot about what kind of data we can collect.”
ODE said recently that roughly 35,000 Oregon school children were attending in-person classes at least part of the time — representing a small fraction of the nearly 600,000 students in the state’s public schools.
Oregon has some of the toughest metrics in the country to allow in-person instruction, requiring that counties have no more than 10 cases per 100,000 to reopen schools completely, or no more than 30 cases per 100,000 to open up to third grade.
Parents are pushing for those metrics to be relaxed, or for greater local control in reopening decisions.
“Oregon’s metrics are among the top five strictest in the country, and the way they’re set out right now, gives very little option or they’re unattainable for our kids getting back into school in person sooner rather than later,” said Jennifer Dale, a Lake Oswego parent who appeared on Think Out Loud® this week, representing a group called “Clack To School,” which wants changes to how school reopening decisions are made.
Dale noted that the numbers in Clackamas County are far above what would allow schools to reopen.
Recent trends have not been moving in the right direction, with statewide COVID-19 case numbers rising. But Gov. Kate Brown recently announced plans to revise school metrics. Gill said he’s been working with the governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority on a new set of guidelines, and they’re expected to come out at the end of October.
Virus charting an uncertain path for schools
It’s neither clear when, nor in what form, most schools will shift away from online learning and toward in-person instruction.
Gill points out that some schools may phase in face-to-face instruction to manage risks from the virus, in ways that don’t fit with how schools have been tracked in the past. Attendance at school may not be a daily occurrence, for instance.
While increasing the kinds of instruction that teachers and students are accustomed to is likely to improve student learning, it’ll also create data headaches. Gill said the state could be looking at another year of lacking data on metrics like class sizes.
“That’s a possibility for this year as well, so that data just doesn’t fit into the data set that we have any longer,” Gill said.
The absence of test data has prompted other questions. Many Oregon educators and parents have objected to the time, cost and focus on the Smarter Balanced exams that hundreds of thousands of students take every year. In recent years, state legislators have made it easier for students to opt-out of the tests, while state education officials have attempted to balance federal testing requirements with local opposition.
Gill said the state has quietly reduced emphasis this year on the big “summative” exams and toward “interim” assessments that teachers can use to help instruction.
“I think this is a tremendous opportunity for that,” Gill said, noting that Oregon spent state money on interim assessments to help teachers, rather than on summative tests for accountability.
As Gill looks at school district report cards that have virtually no new data to help with accountability, he doesn’t seem worried. He acknowledges that state-level data helps his agency monitor schools and craft policy. And even though that’s historically been a big part of ODE’s job, that’s not where he’s focusing now.
“What I’m pretty committed to right now is that we want data that is helpful in meeting our student needs, especially in this time.”