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Evaluating remote learning

COVID-19 has been an enormous challenge to the nation’s public school system. It has forced tens of millions of students to stay at home, often for months at a time, rather than go to class.

Give educators credit for doing what they could with “remote learning.” Thrown suddenly into a whole new way of trying to reach students, many teachers have done remarkably well.

Still, there is no substitute for having students in seats in front of a teacher. Arguing that technology can be a substitute for regular human contact is dreaming.

In the wake of the epidemic, the great task facing educators will be finding better ways to teach children at a distance, should some new disease threaten us in the future. A good start would be evaluating what has worked and what has not during the past several months.

Testing is one method of determining that, so it may have come as a surprise to some that the nation’s primary means of doing that, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has been called off for 2021.

Sometimes referred to as “the nation’s report card,” the NAEP administers tests in every state to gauge how well students across the country are doing in learning important material. It is the only way of comparing performance state-by-state.

Doing that must be approached cautiously, however. The NAEP has many drawbacks, including the fact that its tests are administered only to relatively small samples of students in each state.

Still, it is something. So why call it off for 2021? Because administering it would be a gigantic case of comparing apples to oranges. One example: Access to the internet, the primary tool in “remote learning,” varies wildly from state to state. NAEP score would be likely to indicate, inaccurately in many cases, that teaching in internet-rich states was more effective than in those with less access.

So postponing the NAEP unti 2022 was wise. That leaves the burden of evaluating “remote learning” up to states and school district within them. Clearly, that is a task that must be undertaken — objectively — as soon as possible next year.

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