A COVID Slide Quick Sheet Interview with Darin Nielsen, Utah Assistant Superintendent of Student Learning

As the pandemic continues to disrupt learning across the nation, a growing chorus of education and civil rights organizations, business leaders, and prominent editorial boards are calling for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden to stand by the federal commitment to administering annual student assessments following their sweeping cancellation in the spring. 

Data from state standardized assessments, proponents say, are more important than ever considering the announcement that 2021 NAEP exams would be postponed due to the pandemic. In response, Darin Nielsen, Utah Assistant Superintendent, said the cancellation of student assessments was unfortunate and that the news reinforced the need for states to identify a path forward on measuring student learning. To further discuss the need for student assessment data and how state-level officials are charting a course through pandemic recovery, the Collaborative team virtually sat down with Nielsen. The interview was featured in the COVID Slide Quick Sheet, a bi-weekly newsletter by the Collaborative for Student Success that collects and shares developing news stories about the impact of the pandemic on education, reopening schools, and addressing learning loss. Subscribe to the COVID Slide Quick Sheet here. 



You recently voiced a concern that the NAEP exams had been canceled nationally, and that that makes your state assessment data in Utah more important. What types of concerns can that data help you and other education officials tackle, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Nielsen: Being an educator during 2020 has been somewhat akin to flying an airplane through a “storm of the century” weather event. In March, the dark clouds gathered, the gales battered the fuselage, ice formed on the wings, and visibility dropped to zero. The pilot and ground control acted rapidly to adjust the flight path, alter the destination, and find a way to get the plane safely on the ground. During an event like this, deactivating or turning away from the instruments intended to provide information about the performance of the plane and its relationship to a desired destination is the last thing I would want my pilot to do.

Airplanes also have flight data recorders, or black boxes, that store and protect all relevant flight data, so that in those rare occasions that end in tragedy, we can understand the conditions that contributed to the outcome, learn from the experience, and make changes to standards, processes, and training to improve aviation in the future. While this analogy to education may not be a direct parallel, it seems apropos to the debate around the collection of student achievement data in 2021. The pandemic presents real threats to the administration of state assessments, including logistics, equitable access, utility, and limited resources.

Despite these challenges, educators and policymakers have a responsibility to understand and respond to the educational challenges created by, as well as those preexisting challenges that may have been exacerbated by, the pandemic. The legislated intent of statewide assessments in Utah is to “provide the public, the legislature, the state board, school districts, public schools, and schoolteachers with … information regarding various levels of proficiency achieved by students, so they may have an additional tool to plan, measure, and evaluate the effectiveness of programs in the public schools.”

This emphasizes something that effective educators already understand – that good decisions are informed and validated by data. While teachers and schools have access to real-time data on student engagement and learning, the kind of data that guides instructional activities and interventions for individual students, policymakers at the state and federal level are left wanting. States that mitigate the threats to state assessments, collect pertinent opportunity-to-learn data to contextualize the assessments, and take steps to ensure all 2021 data are protected from misuse and are appropriately interpreted will be better positioned to properly allocate limited resources, adjust related policies, and work collaboratively to support the efforts of our children’s teachers. 

What are the consequences of not testing? Are those types of consequences likely to be felt in other states as well, from your position as a state education official? 

Nielsen: Failing to continue measurement of student learning through the most disruptive event to affect education in the last 100 years seems professionally unconscionable. The collection and use of data to understand our environment, the conditions affecting our lives, and the effect of various “treatments” we are exposed to is embedded in the path of improvement for all industries. If we are unable to collect appropriate student achievement and relevant opportunity-to-learn data during the closing hours of the 2020 pandemic, we will miss the opportunity to understand more fully, not just the impacts of these disruptions to our students and the educational system today, but to identify and promote some of the foremost innovations that will emerge through the tremendous burden of necessity carried by hundreds of thousands of American teachers.

As we see the transition to a Biden administration in the new year, where should we expect this conversation around assessment and accountability to go, both nationally and in your home state of Utah? How much do educators and parents inform this discussion, and how have Utah officials sought to communicate the value of assessment data to these key stakeholders?

Nielsen: As strongly as I feel about moving forward with our efforts to collect data through the administration of statewide assessments, I am equally in favor of decoupling these results from school accountability systems. In fact, I believe the traditional school accountability systems will be impacted by this pandemic for several years to come, given the prominence of student growth metrics in our existing systems. Perhaps a silver lining to the clouds of this pandemic will be an improved realization that the data gathered from state assessments, even in the best of years, are not sufficient to inform our schools’ flight path, full performance of the airplane, and relative position to the desired destination.

I am hopeful that the U.S. Department of Education will relieve schools from the impacts of existing school accountability systems using 2020-2021 assessment data and support more autonomy in redesigned school accountability systems that utilize a more comprehensive set of student and community data. As educators, we are the voices of reason and advocacy when it comes to the purposes and uses of the data, we employ to improve our student’s outcomes on their paths to graduating from our schools prepared to succeed and lead. We understand and advocate for balanced assessment systems that can meet the needs of each of our stakeholders while working to ensure assessments are only used for their intended purposes. The pandemic heightens this responsibility while simultaneously creating an opportunity to make meaningful progress in redeveloped school accountability systems.