The last time states graded schools and pinpointed the lowest performers was after the 2018-19 school year — a lifetime ago for many educators.

That was before the pandemic, before tests were cancelled in 2020, and before many parents opted their children out of tests in 2021. Because states now lack the year-to-year results they typically rely on to make decisions, determining which schools need the most help will be complicated.

But the pandemic has made such determinations more important than ever. While incomplete, the data states collected last spring showed “staggering” declines for students in reading and math, according to a summary from the New Hampshire-based Center for Assessment, and COVID-19 is now disrupting the third school year in a row.

“Let’s assume we have a normal year,” said Allison Timberlake, deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability at the Georgia Department of Education. “At best, we have strong ‘22 data, pandemic-impacted ‘21 data and no ‘20 data. How do we identify the right schools? The ones we identified before the pandemic are not necessarily the ones we should identify after the pandemic.”

Education advocates and civil rights groups say it’s important for states to resume the process of naming their lowest-performing schools so districts can best target resources, including federal relief funds. States identify those schools on annual report cards and mandate interventions from providing free tutoring to bringing in new leaders to turn schools around.

Fifteen organizations argued in a recent letter to U.S Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona that parents and educators need to know where their schools stand, urging him not to grant waivers from ESSA’s accountability provisions this Spring as he did last school year.

“We felt like we needed to put a mark in the sand,” said Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a nonprofit advocating for strong accountability systems. “This is very concerning from an equity standpoint.” An education department spokeswoman confirmed receipt of the letter and said officials welcome input from others.

The groups also noted wider interest in making long-needed changes to assessment and accountability systems, but argued that “now is not the time to open up the Every Student Succeeds Act to rethink the strong assessment requirements of the law.

“However,” they added, “we acknowledge a desire from diverse stakeholders across the country to consider new types of assessment systems and designs.”

The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank and one of the groups signing the letter to Cardona, discussed some of those new approaches in one of three papers on assessments released this week. Those models might get more attention as states emerge from the pandemic.

“This is not going to be the last time we have such a major disruption to education,” said Laura Jimenez, the director of standards and accountability at the Center.

Read the full article about pandemic testing gaps by Linda Jacobson at The 74.