The pandemic’s effect on learning policy and practice in 2020–21

Local educational agencies statewide planned to provide technology, assess student learning, implement tiered levels of support and prioritize services for special student populations during the 2020–21 school year, but methods of doing so largely varied across districts, according to recent research. The most notable differences were found between urban and rural areas.

From Policy to Plans: Supporting Students During COVID-19, published in June by Policy Analysis for California Education, included analysis of nearly 1,000 Learning Continuity and Attendance Plans (LCPs) — documents the California Legislature mandated local educational agencies to develop detailing how they intended to address student learning and progress during the 2020–21 academic year.

“Broadly, the evidence suggests that state education policy at this time reflected a holistic view of student learning, including how it should be measured and supported, as well as the challenges to doing both during the pandemic,” researchers wrote. “Results also indicate that, in general, districts’ plans met the objectives outlined by policymakers. The majority of districts developed plans to make instruction accessible, provide technology, assess student learning and monitor academic progress, employ tiered levels of support, attend to social-emotional well-being, and prioritize services for special populations of students.”

However, there are several considerations education leaders and policymakers should keep in mind moving forward. This analysis exposes broader opportunities for wide-scale reform in both education policymaking and implementation accountability post-pandemic.

Recommendations include:

Focus on rural districts — There was significant contrast between urban and rural districts across nearly all areas of the analysis, including assessment plans, family outreach and access to counselors, with urban LEAs indicating these in their plans at significantly higher rates.

“These differences may be the result of multiple factors, such as an intention in rural districts to spotlight districtwide actions in LCPs (excluding more localized plans) or inequities that existed prior to the pandemic; for example, rural districts often face staffing challenges, which potentially placed greater strains on staff during distance education,” according to researchers. “As internal capacity and, more broadly, the availability of adequate resources could limit the strategies and actions rural districts may be able to take, education leaders should remain cognizant of these challenges and consider what direct supports would best serve these students and schools.”

Consider alternatives to standardized assessment — Because the Legislature mandated districts evaluate potential gaps in student learning, LCPs placed considerable emphasis on diagnostic and formative assessments, suggesting that educators planned to pay careful attention to how students were progressing throughout a nontraditional school year.

Given that assessment results are a key input in various federal- and state-level accountability measures, statewide and national accountability efforts could consider alternative or supplementary ways to examine how districts and schools are meeting students’ academic needs.

“This could include public reporting of alternate or interim assessment results, which may more readily measure academic progress over time. As districts continue to monitor attendance and engagement, such information can also offer critical context about learning opportunities across the state,” researchers concluded.