On pandemic ‘learning loss’, schools look forward, not back

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY (AP) — 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 in central Wisconsin, 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 fall 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 nationwide. Most states aren’t requiring all districts to administer uniform tests to measure students’ slippage. Rather, districts generally are using the tests they give each fall to guide instruction for the school year and, in many cases, also assessing students’ mental health and well-being – an approach favoured by many experts and educators who said a rush to quantify learning loss could demoralise students and teachers.

But as many schools continue distance learning or brace for more virus-related closures that could further slow progress, the patchwork approach to testing this fall worries some advocates and policymakers who said it’s difficult to plan academic recovery this year without consistent data across districts and states.

“We’re in this data black hole,” said Executive Director Kyle Rosenkrans 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 buildings around the country closed last March. Some policymakers said data is needed urgently to support districts with the largest gaps or plan more drastic statewide responses, such as extending the school year.

Among those calling for a more aggressive effort to measure that loss is New Jersey Senator M Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat who co-sponsored a bill to require testing to assess academic and social-emotional needs and to require the state to analyse the results.

New Jersey offered new diagnostic tests to help districts identify students needing extra support, but those aren’t designed to measure statewide trends, and most of its districts are already using other assessments. “The fact that it’s optional and they’re not requiring the data to go back to them, it just misses the whole intent of what is critically needed,” Ruiz said. “We need to know what has happened during this pandemic.”

Some places are starting to get a partial glimpse of the pandemic’s academic toll. To measure learning loss on a large scale, researchers need recent test results from across districts, but consistent data will be hard to come by.

States cancelled their annual exams last spring at the start of the pandemic, and most are letting districts decide whether and how to test this fall. Few states appear to be collecting the results of those tests. “It’s information that everybody wants to have,” said Executive Director of AASA Daniel Domenech, the School Superintendents Association. “But, right now, the priority is focussing on kids’ needs.”

Educators highlight other arguments for avoiding wide-scale testing this fall. They worry it could lead to a focus on reviewing past topics, at the expense of teaching new material. Teachers also raised concerns that having students take tests from home could skew results. Some school districts are tweaking their usual fall assessments.

Dayton Leadership Academies, a K-8 charter school in Dayton, Ohio, began classes remotely but staggered appointments for students to visit school for several hours of 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 instructors some relief. More students were categorised as being behind their grade level, but the numbers weren’t nearly as bad as they’d anticipated.

Camden and other districts plan to use the data to design districtwide interventions, such as after-school programmes and academic “boot camps” for the students furthest behind.