School districts won’t be able to chart a path forward without an accurate measurement of what’s been lost.

More than 300 days have passed since public schools in Massachusetts had to close due to the coronavirus pandemic, resorting instead to remote or hybrid learning programs that have proved inferior for many students. Yet, at least in Massachusetts, there isn’t reliable data to assess the stunted progress and outright learning loss that many students have experienced during this time.

That’s why the announcement last month that a modified version of the MCAS will be administered this year is welcome. Although the MCAS is typically a graduation requirement for individual students and a way of measuring the performance of districts, it won’t serve either of those purposes this year. Instead, state Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley told The Boston Globe the test is needed this year to diagnose any learning deficits.

“Right now we are hypothesizing that students learning exclusively remotely are probably going to have more gaps than students who are in-person (full time) or in hybrid learning. We need this data to figure that out,” he said.

Indeed, it’s a smart move to test using a modified exam — and use the results to identify the losses districts will need to address. Districts shouldn’t be held accountable for any academic deficits revealed by the tests, but those results can provide a benchmark to gauge how well districts close pandemic-related gaps in the future.

Perhaps the results will only reinforce the obvious: that the pandemic exacerbated existing socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps. Nonetheless, one can’t manage what one can’t measure correctly. The data is needed to shape districts’ recovery response post pandemic, especially given that there are hundreds of millions of dollars coming to the state as part of the latest round of economic relief to help districts and students get back on track.

“There’s about $800 million coming statewide,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. Lambert said diagnosing learning loss will be critical to determine what to do with the extra federal money. “It can be used to do summer programming, accelerated academies, intense tutoring.”

For some, it might come across as unseemly to talk about students’ learning losses when so many lives have been lost to COVID-19. But the educational future of a whole generation of kids is at stake. The first step for districts and educators to reverse the COVID-19 slide is to learn just how bad it is.

— The Boston Globe