The chief of Mississippi’s public schools wants to give them a “year of grace” and not hold them accountable for the academic performance of their students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Truthfully, this would be the second year of grace that Superintendent of Education Carey Wright is recommending. This past year the schools and the school districts were allowed to keep the same A-to-F accountability grade that they had received the year prior. That became necessary after state tests, which largely determine those letter grades, were called off last spring because all public school students — by the order of Gov. Tate Reeves — were sent home for the rest of the semester, and schools limped through virtual learning.

This spring, state tests are scheduled to be administered. Wright just doesn’t want them to count, not for the schools and not for the students, including those who, under current state law, may have to pass the tests in order to graduate (in the case of high schoolers) or to advance to the next grade (in the case of third graders).

What Wright is recommending may be sensible, given the difficulties that schools, especially those that have remained mostly or all virtual, have had in trying to adapt to the precautions necessitated by the pandemic. Such “grace,” however, does come with a downside. If schools and students know that their scores on these tests don’t matter, they will be less motivated to put in the effort to do well on them.

But even if Wright’s recommendation is adopted, it needs to be with this caveat: The tests will not impact the letter grade of schools or school districts, but they will still be analyzed and released to the public so that everyone can see how much ground has been lost over the past year.

It’s expected to be considerable.

There have been regular and constant reports, in Mississippi and throughout the country, that even when the technology works, distance learning in the elementary and secondary schools is a poor substitute for in-person instruction. Wright’s request for another “grace year” is an admission of that. If it weren’t, there would be no need to cut the schools any slack.

The tests don’t have to be a complete waste of time and money, however, if they are used to truthfully and objectively evaluate how the last year has gone. The Mississippi Department of Education has the staff and the tools to compare and contrast the academic performance of students across the schools and the school districts, and to break it down by race, family income level and other socioeconomic factors. From there, it should be possible to determine how big a difference there was for schools that stayed all virtual this academic year, those that went back to in-person instruction and those that used a mixture of the two. Where gaps exists, have they been worse for some kids, based on their family circumstances, than others? Have they been worse for some grades than others?

We assume that poor kids and those in the younger grades are going to show the biggest negative academic impact from distance learning. The analysis of test results, if it’s not manipulated, will show whether that assumption is accurate.

Once this pandemic passes, there is going to be a lot of damage to repair. It’s not only the economy and the social fabric that have suffered. So has the delivery of knowledge.

This is no knock on the schools. Most of them have done the best they could in historically difficult circumstances.

But we should not sugarcoat the reality. Mississippi has lost ground on education. That’s a near certainty. Policymakers need to know how much in order to create a strategy to begin the recovery.

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