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Administrators Reconsider Usual Academic Assessment In Light Of Pandemic

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
With COVID-19 cases on the rise, more schools are resuming full remote learning, which is impacting assessment and shining a light on the digital divide.

On today's program: Pittsburgh Public School administrators say assessments have to be reconsidered in a pandemic; The POISE Foundation’s latest “Pulse Report” finds a disproportionate amount of high poverty and Black students in fully remote learning; The pandemic is making the digital divide all the more obvious; and two professors take on questions about sleep and computers.

How to assess learning in a pandemic
(1:00 - 14:09)

The Secretary of Education cancelled all Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) testing and Keystone exams for the 2019 to 2020 school year because of the pandemic. The U.S. Department of Education also approved Pennsylvania’s request to waive all federal assessment, accountability, and reporting requirements for this school year.

Dr. Suzanne Lane, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, says student progress is the most important to assess, for what she calls “formative purposes,” to identify where students are, where they need to go, and how to get there.

Lane specializes in educational measurement and the relationship between learning and assessment, and she says now is a time to reconsider large scale assessments.

"My belief is that the schools should provide information to determine the extent to which their children are being taught in a hybrid mode, in the classroom, or a combination.”

Minika Jenkins, Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Chief Academic Officer, agrees: now is a good time to revisit formative assessments of students. She says it was always the plan to take note of students’ social-emotional needs from the beginning of the school year.

Dr. Ted Dwyer is the Chief of Data, Research, Evaluation and Assessment (DREA) for Pittsburgh Public School District. He says, so far, the district knows that 99 percent of students have accessed Schoology, the district’s e-learning tool.

“But to Dr. Lane’s point, we also need to be able to look and see if they're actually engaging,” says Dwyer. “Are they turning in classwork, are they attending every day?” This becomes more challenging through a screen, Dwyer says.

An audit from the City of Pittsburgh released this month found that 336, or about 1.5 percent of Pittsburgh Public School students hadn’t logged onto the district’s learning platform or been reached by school staff since late September.

“In my mind, assessment is what a teacher does every day, it's not just a test that you're gonna give once every nine weeks, or once a year, or anything like that,” says Dwyer.

Right now, the best potential use of state assessment systems, says Lane, is “not as a punitive measure for accountability, but to be able to identify those schools that need additional support and resources.”

“I think one of the things statewide assessments can provide is  longitudinal perspective as well as the academic performance.”

But, Lane adds, this is an opportunity to step back and seek improvements in assessment systems, such as whether they’re sensitive to different cultural groups.

Dwyer says this could be an opportunity for Pittsburgh Public Schools to adapt to new assessment methods, but this could be difficult given current assessments help ensure federal accountability for the district. Having the test be waived for the year, Dwyer says, “doesn't provide us with the space to say ‘we're going to spend millions of dollars to reorganize or redevelop this assessment.’”

“That will take a lot more work from our state legislature and from the Pennsylvania Department of Education communicating with the federal department of education,” says Dwyer.

POISE Foundation finds more Black and high poverty students are in full-remote learning than their peers
(14:16 - 20:13)

The pandemic is putting poorer and more minority students at risk of falling behind because they are more likely to have their learning fully virtual.

“In our October issue [of the Pulse Report for Children & Families], we highlighted two data points around learning models,” says Karris Jackson, Chief Operating Officer of POISE Foundation. “What we found was there was a disproportionae number of non-white studnets that were in the full-remote learning model.”

The POISE Foundation, along with the United Way and Allies for Children took stock of how the pandemic has affected families in our region in the Pulse Report for Children & Families.

“We know there are educational advantages to being in the classroom in person with a teacher,” says Jackson. “However, we also realize given the current situation that we're in, that's not possible always and it's not always what's in the best interest of the student. So, our hope is by putting this information out there, schools and community organizations and foundations will be able to ensure the students who are remote have the resources that they need.”

These resources include access to broadband internet, computers and other devices, and resources for teachers who are implementing remote instruction.

“We know the disparities in the education system pre-date COVID-19, so what we're seeing is just how COVID has kind of exasperated issues that have already been bedrocked into our educational system,” says Jackson.

Educational digital divide exacerbated by COVID-19
(20:16 - 24:41)

The pandemic brought the digital divide into sharp focus. Locally, school districts became responsible for getting students computers, tablets and Internet access so that they could learn virtually from home.

90.5 WESA’s Sarah Schneider reports that eight months in, most students in the region are still learning remotely, and reliable Internet is still an issue for families in Pennsylvania's second largest school district. 

Good Question, Kid! Do people sneeze in their sleep? How are computers made, and how do they work?
(24:45 - 29:00)

The Confluence has been asking families for questions: those very good questions that a kiddo in your life might have that leaves you scratching your head.

As part of 90.5 WESA’s Good Question, Kid! Series, Dr. Sanjay Patel, director of the UPMC Clinical Sleep Programs, explains why we don’t quite sneeze in our sleep. We also hear from Dr. Patrick Juola, a professor of computer science at Duquesne University, about how computers are made and how they work.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
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