No Child Left Behind by Coronavirus Closures

Now that we are months into quarantine for COVID-19 with no immediate end in sight, school districts across the nation have begun accepting the reality that they won’t be returning this year. As of April 26th, 43 states, along with 4 U.S. Territories, and the District of Columbia, “have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the academic year, affecting approximately 45.1 million public school students.” These sudden and mass closures have forced schools to reevaluate everything.

As with other sectors of society, the deregulation that has come to education out of necessity proves that much of the centralized way our government controls education is unnecessary. The best example of this is doubtless the mass abandonment of high-stakes standardized testing that has come as a result of COVID-19.

When states decided to close schools for nearly a quarter of the year, one of the first problems that required a solution was grading students. How can teachers and administrators ensure that students are meeting educational standards? More importantly, how can schools ensure that graduating students should be eligible for a diploma?

Since the Bush administration passed No Child Left Behind, high-stakes state testing has been the bedrock of our educational system. Rather than empower teachers and local administrators to do what’s best for their students, this system relies on a one-size-fits-all approach to measure educational achievement. In short, such policies have been an abysmal failure, favoring centralized control over a student-first model. While some states have already begun to rethink their approach to high-stakes testing, it seems that the COVID-19 closures may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for this outdated system.

In some states, like Texas and Florida, the Governors have already waived state testing for the 2019-2020 school year, with several others considering the same. In doing so, these states have vested the local school districts with the responsibility of determining their own standards for grading and graduation, empowering the local governments. School districts have taken various approaches, but nearly all have placed the decision in the hands of those who know their students best: teachers, counselors, and school administrators.

In San Angelo, Texas, where I attended K-12, the San Angelo Independent School District has established a new system of grading policies that is centered around treating each student as an individual. Students who were passing at the end of the third quarter, and regularly attend online classes during the fourth quarter (which is pass/fail), will automatically pass. Those students who were failing at the end of the third quarter, and/or do not attend online classes, are put on the bubble.

For those students on the bubble, the school will convene a three-person committee consisting of the teacher of the respective class, the student’s counselor, and a school administrator like a vice principal. This three-person committee will engage in a holistic review of the student’s record and make a determination about whether or not the student should receive credit.

While such a system is far from perfect and erected with haste, it is far superior to the previous system that relied almost entirely upon all-or-nothing standardized state testing and high-stakes final exams. The most important consideration for school districts is to address the diversity of home life situations of their students. Determining advancement eligibility based on this holistic model better allows schools to address these diversities of experiences among their students. No student should be punished for having a difficult home life. Eliminating high-stakes tests in favor of holistic examination has the potential to help those students that need it the most, especially when they are stuck at home.

Though these orders only apply to the current year, and states may very well return to high-stakes testing next year, it nevertheless represents a significant step away from bad policy. Hopefully, this year will serve as a proof of concept, showing that these tests were unnecessary to begin with.

Commentators and pundits have regularly lamented about the plight of the Class of 2020. But, if current trends continue, the Class of 2020 is set to be a pivotal turning point in American education. Hopefully, state and local governments will recognize the benefits of empowering their teachers and will codify these changes permanently.