What At-Home Assessments in Spring 2020 Taught Us about Distance-Learning and the 2020–2021 School Year

By: | 08/27/2020
Categories: Data Culture, Distance Learning

Nothing about teaching and learning in 2020 has been easy, and Back to School 2020 presents a fresh set of challenges and tough decisions. If your district will be learning remotely this fall, deciding whether or not you will assess students at home in the beginning of the school year is one of the large, difficult decisions that must be made.

Through results from school districts that elected to assess students at home in spring 2020, Curriculum Associates learned that at-home assessment is complicated and tough to do well. Approximately 800,000 students assessed at home this spring, and more than 800 schools administered an i-Ready Diagnostic, Curriculum Associates’ adaptive assessment. Our research team found that out of these 800-plus schools, only four were able to get what we consider within the realm of “reasonable results” across the entire school.

By “reasonable results,” we mean data that was consistent with expectations based on data from prior years. Specifically, researchers compared the rate of growth from fall to spring during the 2019–2020 school year versus the school year prior, as well as the relationship between fall 2019 and spring 2020, and found striking inconsistencies.

  • Overall, fall 2019 to spring 2020 growth was much greater than the growth rate in the prior school year. This could be for a number of reasons, but our researchers suspect that students may have received help from family members and peers on the spring 2020 assessment, leading to inflated scores.
  • We also saw an unexpected relationship between fall and spring scores. For example, students who performed well in fall 2019 had low spring 2020 scores. In the past year, high-performing students had high scores in both the fall and spring.

The takeaway: Assessing at home is really, really difficult—but it can be done with the right planning, buy-in, infrastructure, and tracking. Ultimately, each district will have to determine how vital student data is to their schools for the 2020–2021 school year. The districts that decide they absolutely must have students take a Diagnostic should know they are signing up for a challenge, and the steps below will be critical to their assessment success.


First things first, you cannot go into this thinking you can follow the assessment plan you used in fall 2019, especially as more districts decide to start the school year with remote learning or a remote/in-school learning hybrid. You’ll need a new, at-home—specific plan that covers logistics, communications, timelines, and more. As you develop this new plan, consider the following:

Who: Which students will be assessed? Will you have all students in every grade take a Diagnostic? Only elementary students? Only those who need intervention?

Where: If your district will blend in-school and at-home learning, will you be able to assess students in school buildings? If yes, how will you do this safely?

How: Do you have a way to get devices to all students? How will you accommodate students with special needs? Will assessments be monitored? If yes, will you need to enlist additional staff? If done at home, how will you ensure you get valid testing results?

When: Districts will be eager to assess students early in the fall so they can gauge learning loss, develop instruction plans, etc. However, testing should not be done before districts have completed their planning and created strong at-home testing conditions. If you must choose between testing early and honing your assessment plan, planning should be your top priority.

Ultimately, your plan needs to be thorough, clear, and reflect your district's resources, personnel bandwidth, and student needs.

Get Buy-In!

This step should have 1,000 exclamation points. That’s how essential teacher, principal, administrator, family, and student buy-in will be to the success of your fall 2020 assessment.

When you introduce your fall 2020 at-home assessment plan, stakeholders will want practical information such as when students will take their first Diagnostic, how long it will take, etc. But buy-in—getting teachers, families, and students behind an at-home assessment—will come from them understanding the “why.” Why are you choosing to assess students during distance learning?

In your communications, make your rationale for administering a Diagnostic at home very clear. Before putting your assessment plan in motion, make sure everyone understands that Diagnostic data will:

  • Enable educators to gauge students’ individual learning needs
  • Give teachers information to inform instructional plans
  • Reveal individual and group learning loss and prerequisite needs
  • Enable educators to tailor instruction to students’ individual learning needs
  • Allow personalized instruction programs, such as i-Ready, to provide just-right lessons for each student

School Leaders and Teachers Must Own Assessments

The importance of school-level leaders and teachers “owning” assessments is best illustrated by an anecdote from spring 2020. District leaders of a high-performing district of 130,000 students made plans to assess students remotely in the spring. District leaders announced these plans without consulting school-level leaders and teachers. The educators who were left out of the assessment decision-making process were so upset, the district ultimately had to cancel plans to assess its students.

The takeaway: District leaders need to be transparent and upfront with educators, they must communicate frequently and clearly, and district educators should be involved in assessment planning.

Without Family Participation, Assessments Won’t Work

Family involvement will be indispensable for collecting “clean” data that truly reflects each student’s individual strengths and needs. Family members should be educators’ partners and onsite proctors during assessments. Their participation is so critical that we’ll soon share an entire post with tips and resources for engaging families in at-home assessments. But on a high level, families will need to understand the following:

  • Assessment data is a valuable tool that helps teachers plan and personalize instruction.
  • Assessments are not tests; they do not impact students’ grades.
  • Adaptive assessments are assessments where questions get harder and harder, which may frustrate some students.
  • Helping students with answers is actually hurting them because teachers will be getting inaccurate data.

Build the Right Infrastructure

If spring 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to plan for the uncertain and expect the unpredictable. What does this mean when it comes to assessing from home? It means that to successfully execute a first Diagnostic at home, district leaders must confirm that educators and students have the technology and resources they need to succeed as well as resources to help them when technology and plans go awry—because things will not go perfectly, no matter how well educators and students prepare.

  • Confirm that students have the necessary technology at home and know how to use it.
  • Ensure that there is a way to support families and teachers with troubleshooting.
  • Make sure that students who require accommodations are able to get them.

Track Completion and Use Your Data Judiciously

Tracking students’ completion of the fall 2020 Diagnostic is an obvious step in many ways. What isn’t obvious is how methodically executed this step needs to be. Before your district’s first Diagnostic Window opens, have tracking materials ready for district leaders and ensure that school leaders and teachers have their own tracking materials in place.

  • Make sure you have the appropriate level of access to your assessment program’s reporting dashboard and that you’re familiar with its layout and options.
  • Use your assessment program’s reports to track students’ progress toward completion.
  • Watch out for “Rush alerts”—red flags that indicate students are moving through the Diagnostic too swiftly—from your assessment program reports.
  • Ensure that each student completes a Diagnostic with valid results within the desired window.
  • Use the data from the Diagnostic mainly to inform instruction.

Looking for more information and resources?

Curriculum Associates’ Distance Learning hub has guidance, tips, and tools for leaders and educators.

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