Within a day after Seattle school buildings closed because of COVID-19 last year, the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle began securing laptops and internet service for virtual learning for the nearly 200 young people in our programs.
We hand-delivered meals to the homes of children we knew typically get most of their meals at school. Later, we partnered to turn schools into COVID-19 testing and food-distribution sites that soon will offer vaccines.
We’re all feeling the sustained impact of the pandemic, and Seattle’s families of color — including our kids — are still figuring out their lives in a COVID world. Economic recovery is important, but we need to make the health, safety and well-being of our students — our future — our priority as well.
As we look at how best to support and educate students, we need to make sure we are allocating our resources at a statewide level to the achievement, provision of opportunities and ultimate success of our Black students.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionally affected communities of color, the Seattle community struggled to provide an excellent, equitable education for all students. As a specific example, only about 30% of Black boys in Seattle were meeting the state’s reading standards before the outbreak.
Little information about the Seattle schools’ approach under COVID-19-related closures restrictions have addressed preexisting or current inequities in our schools.
As a part of our recovery, Seattle-area decision-makers and stakeholders are relying on public health data, workforce data and housing data in order to develop and implement a recovery plan for the region. For the larger community, that means using adequate data to make sure resources are going to the right places and that the recovery is properly calibrated and implemented.
At the Urban League, we believe that a key source of that data is in danger of being sidelined, just as we can see the beginning of a recovery on the horizon. Critically important data about how best to ensure that students are included in our plans comes from summative state assessments — the Smarter Balanced assessment in Washington state.
As an important step in supporting teaching and learning in our community, we were pleased to see President Joe Biden’s administration follow the urging of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. As chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and a longtime ally of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, Murray rightly pushed the administration not to issue blanket waivers for federal testing requirements, but instead to allow states some time-limited flexibilities such as extending the testing window or shortening the tests.
Murray, along with Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, recognized that it’s an incredibly challenging time for students and educators. While states need flexibility, they noted in a joint statement, “Statewide assessments are important to identify what extra support schools need to help their students get back on track and to ensure every student has an equitable opportunity to succeed.”
Annual statewide assessments are a helpful tool because they provide the most reliable, valid and objective source of information that tell parents, families and communities how the education system is serving our children. The results from these tests also play a critical role in shining a light on vast disparities in educational opportunity, helping to secure support for students who are too often underserved in our schools.
To show this support, the Urban League joined 18 other civil rights and education groups in a letter to now-Education Secretary Miguel Cardona spelling out that position.
Make no mistake, we must be attuned to the social and emotional needs of our young people, and there are real and valid concerns associated with testing, particularly under COVID-19 restrictions. We believe the administration’s decision to waive the accountability requirements surrounding the test scores for this school year should help to minimize the stress of testing. We want to know what the baseline is for learning so we can best support students, but we must not punish schools or teachers for circumstances outside of their control.
The civil rights movement has long relied on data to identify and address disparities that affect Black Americans and other underserved communities in order to craft remedies and guide educational investments. In the area of education, it was just such data that allowed us to advocate to strike down school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education and to shine a light on the school-to-prison pipeline.
Today, data is again vital as Washington’s school districts and communities dig in to help schools and families address the instructional loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, those inequities that existed pre-pandemic and to build our students’ physical and mental assets via targeted supports and interventions. Without the data state assessment provides, we risk losing a generation of young people. And that is unacceptable.