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Gauging the fallout from the pandemic on learning

Is your tablet fully charged for Zoom class tomorrow? Did you submit your homework online yet? 

Imagine asking your school-aged children this just one year ago. My guess is you’d probably be scratching your head.

And while these questions may have confused or even shocked many parents not too long ago, a few school-related questions remain the same. Primary among them: is my child learning?

How academic progress is normally assessed for students

The answer to this question can be sought out in more than one way. For some, it’s through report cards or parent-teacher conferences. Others may be more broadly interested in their school’s performance, seeking out the state’s parent dashboard or latest M-STEP results

As you can probably guess, the pandemic has altered the way we answer this important question. For example, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos permitted Michigan and other states to cancel their federally mandated state tests (i.e. M-STEP) for Spring 2020. Around that time, schools in Michigan were suddenly forced to transition 100 percent of instruction online for the remainder of the school year. According to the department, the cancellation occurred because “students are simply too unlikely to be able to perform their best in this environment.”

When school resumed this past fall, students across our region were either in face-to-face, virtual or hybrid educational settings. Many children switched between learning settings throughout the 2020-21 school year as well.

The M-STEP may be cancelled again in our state, as requested by the state superintendent.

Gauging student learning outcomes during COVID-19

With all of the changes to instruction prompted by the pandemic, we need to dig a bit deeper than usual to get an accurate picture of student learning. The NWEA — a national assessment organization — did just that in their recent November 2020 national study. Key findings from NWEA’s report (based on tests of more than four million students grades 3-8) revealed:

  • In reading, scores were fairly stable when comparing Fall 2019 (prior to the pandemic) to Fall 2020 (during the pandemic). In mathematics, however, scores dropped about 5-10 percentile points
  • Similarly, growth in reading resembled previous years, while mathematics growth gains were lagging 
  • There were some issues in the ability to compare results for assessments taken in-person versus online. This was particularly problematic in early elementary grades
  • The attrition rate — measuring whether or not kids are showing up year to year — jumped to about 25 percent this past fall. In other words, one in four were simply “missing” from the assessment altogether. These students tended to be higher poverty, students of color or lower achieving. Excluding these students underestimated the results
  • In general, these inconsistencies require caution in interpreting the latest results

The pandemic and a holistic view of student experience

Among the most startling findings from NWEA is that one in four students were simply “missing” from their schools. Unfortunately, assessment results can’t tell us the story for why this took place. And ignoring this story — particularly during the pandemic — can have serious consequences. 

So what were some of the likely impediments to students’ learning over the past several months?

Perhaps it’s a lack of reliable technology or high-speed internet for at-home learning — found to be most prevalent among our lower-income students. For others, it’s financial insecurity due to family job losses. 

A January 2021 study found that just under a half-million Michigan adults — about one in five — reported their children weren’t eating enough because they couldn’t afford food. Or take the October 2020 study from the Center for Disease Control, citing an astonishing 31 percent increase in adolescent mental health-related emergency room visits nationwide from the previous year. 

These facts remind us that school is more than a place where students receive reading, writing and arithmetic skills. For our neediest students, school is where they receive their daily meals or mental health services. Outside of defined services, it’s also where students gain critical social-emotional skills. A place where they form bonds with their peers and teachers. 

Simply put, a child who is hungry or feeling alone in the world is not concerned with finishing their homework on time.

Keeping kids at the center

It’s been a tough year for all us, schools notwithstanding. We should always be striving toward ensuring our kids are learning. However, this goes beyond just finding for the right test, textbook or homework assignment.

And while the challenges exposed by the pandemic aren’t new, it has only reminded us of what we’ve known all along. Meeting the needs of our kids must remain the foundation of public education. Our students’ very success in life depends on it.

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