Schools look forward, not back, on pandemic learning loss

Overseas-education | Patrick Wall and Kantele Frank 3 Nov 2020

A complete picture has yet to emerge of how much learning was lost by students during the pandemic.

That's all right with educators like superintendent Craig Broeren, whose top concern is figuring out where each student stands now.

Wisconsin Rapids, his small school district, isn't administering any special test to measure how much districtwide progress stalled after classrooms closed in March. Such data wouldn't capture a student's unique circumstances or point a way forward, Broeren said.

Instead, the district is sticking with its usual autumn assessments. Those tests can roughly estimate learning loss since the spring, but leaders say they are most useful for pinpointing what students know now and tracking how much they learn.

"Frankly, what we lost is less of an issue than where a kid is starting from,'' Broeren said, "and using that to inform instruction.''

That approach is the norm. Most states aren't requiring all districts to administer tests to measure students' slippage. Rather, districts generally are using the tests they give each autumn to guide instruction for the school year and, in many cases, also assessing students' mental health and well-being.

But as many schools continue distance learning or brace for more virus-related closures, the patchwork approach to testing worries some who say it's difficult to plan academic recovery this year.

"We're in this data black hole,'' said Kyle Rosenkrans, executive director of the New Jersey Children's Foundation, an advocacy group that plans to hire researchers to estimate how much students have fallen behind. "You can't prescribe solutions unless you have a sound diagnosis of the scale of the problem.''

Using data from past school closures, researchers have estimated some students might have lost several months to a year's worth of academic growth after school campuses closed in March.

Some places are starting to get a partial glimpse of the pandemic's academic toll. Idaho, which requires grades K to three to take an autumn reading test, found an overall decline in reading skills. And Washington DC likewise discovered a significant drop in the share of young pupils meeting reading targets.

Some school districts are tweaking their usual assessments. Dayton Leadership Academies in Dayton, Ohio, began classes remotely but staggered appointments for students to visit school for assessments. That allowed kids to be tested in a controlled environment and meet their teachers, principal Tess Mitchner Asinjo said. "It felt more like real school,'' she said.

The results brought some relief. More students were behind their grade level, but the numbers weren't nearly as bad as they'd anticipated.

Schools in Camden, New Jersey, plan to use teacher-created quizzes, external tests such as the i-Ready online assessment tool and possibly state assessments to help districts identify learning gaps, superintendent Katrina McCombs said. "My gut tells me we are going to take a hit in some of our skills."

Many districts are comparing students' autumn scores with mid-year tests taken before schools closed.

But to precisely measure learning loss, districts would need to compare the change in students' scores this year to their estimated academic growth in a normal year, said John Gatta, CEO of education research and analytics firm ECRA Group. "Most schools probably can't do such an analysis themselves."

There is some hope that federally mandated testing in the spring could provide a more complete picture of the so-called Covid-19 slide. Those tests might reveal whether certain districts or racial or ethnic groups lost more ground than others, but the results won't be available until next autumn.

That leaves policymakers without data they can use this school year, Massachusetts board of education member Michael Moriarty said.

The state offered free diagnostic tests, he said, but its education department doesn't have the authority to make districts give the tests or submit the results.

"We're flying blind right now,'' he said.

Chalkbeat and Associated Press

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