Schools scrambling, students behind after year of COVID

Orchard Park Elementary teacher Cary Forlines answers question from first-graders Tuesday March 2, 2021. The Kettering school opened for in-person learning in late January after months of COVID-19 restrictions.
Orchard Park Elementary teacher Cary Forlines answers question from first-graders Tuesday March 2, 2021. The Kettering school opened for in-person learning in late January after months of COVID-19 restrictions.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Catch-up plans will vary, because if one thing is certain, one size does not fit all.

Students — some of whom haven’t been in a classroom in nearly a year due to COVID — are behind, according to state and national testing data. Some studies say the gap is minimal, while others say it’s half a year or more.

Districts across the Dayton region report a range of learning loss, with some seeing increases in students considered at risk, others experiencing relatively stable progress and a few with academic gains.

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The question is how to reverse losses now to avoid a downward domino effect. An analysis by the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank suggested current learning loss could lead to a 3.8% increase in high school dropouts in the coming years, hurting the labor force and the economy.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine told schools to submit plans this month on how they’ll help students catch up. Those plans will vary, because in schools, one size almost never fits all — especially when some kids have been in classrooms daily since August and others have been fully online for 51 weeks.

“One of the positives this year is understanding the importance of personalization,” state Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said. “A lot more people have spent time understanding where kids are, what their needs are, and figuring out the best way to address those needs.”

Students at Orchard Park Elementary School in Kettering eat lunch in plastic boxes because of COVID-10,.
Students at Orchard Park Elementary School in Kettering eat lunch in plastic boxes because of COVID-10,.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

What do we know about student progress?

For that first step — understanding where kids are — experts have been analyzing tons of testing data from fall 2020, much of it from diagnostic tools such as MAP, i-Ready and STAR that many local schools use.

  • Over 4 million U.S. students in grades 3–8 took fall MAP tests, according to the Northwest Evaluation Association. Reading results were surprisingly on par with the year before, but math scores were 5 to 10 percentage points lower (worst at the younger ages).
  • STAR tests were taken by over 125,000 Ohio first- through eighth-graders, according to test provider Renaissance. Two reading metrics were down 1 to 3 points from last year, and 7% fewer students reached their grade-level benchmark in math.
  • On the i-Ready tests nationally, about 5-6% more second- and third-graders tested well below grade level in reading than in previous years. In math, about 9-10% more tested well below grade level.

Some analysts question the accuracy of those assessments, in part because not as many students took the tests this school year. Kristen Huff, vice president of Curriculum Associates, which runs i-Ready, also expressed concerns about tests taken at home, where parents might be tempted to help.

Ohio-specific results

This fall, the state third-grade reading test and the kindergarten readiness assessment showed similar problems. Third-grade proficiency and the kindergarten “on track” measures were both off by 8 to 9%.

The Ohio Department of Education had two Ohio State University researchers analyze the fall third-grade reading test, which students had to take at school under controlled circumstances. They found that compared to the previous year, average achievement declined by the equivalent of one-third of a year’s learning.

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The report from OSU’s Vladimir Kogan and Stéphane Lavertu found the proportion of students scoring “proficient” fell 9 percentage points, and Black students had larger test score declines, equal to about half of a year’s learning.

“Achievement declines were more pronounced among districts that began this academic year using fully remote instruction,” Kogan and Lavertu wrote.

But again, because one size doesn’t fit all, over 10% of Ohio school districts’ scores were flat or went up, including small improvements in Brookville, Preble Shawnee and New Lebanon.

Local schools’ experiences

Northmont: The district has had face-to-face classes four days a week after an online first quarter. Assistant Superintendent Susanne Lintz said her district uses an assessment three times a year to monitor reading and math progress from kindergarten through 10th grade.

“We have seen a slight increase in the percentage of students who are considered ‘at-risk’ from the assessments in both reading and math,” she said, adding that Northmont plans to expand its summer school offerings at all grade levels.

Students at Orchard Park Elementary School sit in class with protective plastic around their desks Tuesday March 2, 2021. The school is now open for in person learning after 12 months of COVID-19 restrictions.
Students at Orchard Park Elementary School sit in class with protective plastic around their desks Tuesday March 2, 2021. The school is now open for in person learning after 12 months of COVID-19 restrictions.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Kettering: Assistant Superintendent Dan Von Handorf said teachers, parents and students did a great job during four months of remote learning this school year, and students in grades 2-8 are at similar reading and math levels as in previous years, according to the district’s diagnostic testing.

A Kettering trouble spot has been kindergarten and first grade, where it was difficult for young students to pick up those first building-block reading and math skills in a remote model.

Springboro: Roughly 85% of students have been in the school buildings since September. Assistant Superintendent Andrea Cook said her district’s biggest takeaway so far is not on the academic side.

“We are seeing signs of the trauma of the pandemic in our youth,” Cook said. “We are doing our very best to intervene and provide assistance to families whether utilizing our guidance counseling staff, crisis team and outside counseling sources. Our primary concern is with the social and emotional health of our students.”

Catholic schools: Karyn Hecker, regional director for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Dayton-area schools, pointed out a surprise pandemic impact. Catholic schools have been in-person all year, but because of COVID safety protocols, fewer assemblies, musical performances and events have been held during the school day.

“What Catholic school teachers have most recently reported is that they have covered more content this school year,” she said. “With fewer school day interruptions … more instructional time has been devoted to academics.”

Important next steps

More than 99% of the Dayton area’s 140,000-plus K-12 students now have the option of at least some in-person school, and within a week, more than 90% will be able to attend at least four days a week. Thousands of others continue to learn online, by choice.

But there’s still much work to do.

Dayton: Dayton Public Schools started back in-person last week, and they’re still finding their footing. Teachers union President David Romick said he’s not confident educators have a firm grasp on where students stand academically because some didn’t participate much during online learning.

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Formative or diagnostic tests will start in a few weeks, Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said, allowing teachers to find and target areas of deficiency.

“Then I’ll be able to talk more about where we can get to (through June), if we truly push and push and push and provide the resources to the students that they need,” Lolli said.

Fairborn: As the district builds its “DeWine plan” this month, Fairborn is surveying its parents on what help they want to see for their kids: Credit recovery programs for high schoolers? Half-day summer school programs? Tutoring, either during school, after school or Saturdays?

The survey is on the district’s website and closes Monday.

Brookville: The district has been in-person all year, and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Stephanie Hinds said they built “gap analysis reports” on what content standards were missed last spring so kids could catch up. Their fall third-grade reading scores, which included both their in-person and remote students, went up this year.

Remote learning students will return in person for the fourth quarter. Hinds said the district will follow safety rules, but also hopes to find ways to increase some of the valuable small-group and project-based lessons that had to be modified because of COVID concerns.

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Oakwood: Junior High Principal Tim Badenhop said in addition to individual intervention with students via “directed study hall,” vertical alignment will be key in bridging this school year and the next. For example, seventh-grade teachers communicating well with eighth-grade staff about any content that wasn’t covered fully, so teachers can adjust in the fall to address any learning gaps students have.

“In addition we are closely monitoring students taking math, as math is sequential and skill-based,” Oakwood High School Principal Paul Waller said. “We know we will need to fill in gaps and provide support for students who have struggled. Emotional support is a key component for our students as their emotional health impacts their academics.”

Closing out the school year

For the next three months, educators will do the hard part — going student by student and figuring out who needs math help, who needs reading intervention, and who needs emotional support.

DeMaria, the state superintendent, said periodic diagnostic tests can give educators “deep insight” and help in that process.

“The annual state tests were never meant to be delivered so quickly that you could act on them within the school year,” he said. “So many schools have those NWEA MAP, iReady, STAR tests that give them the more real-time information about how their students are doing. … It’s not one-size-fits-all.”

SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCE

Educators, parents and students in grades 6-12 are invited to share their school experiences from this year of COVID-19 in a series of virtual listening sessions. They will help the Ohio Department of Education develop resources and strategies that support student learning. To register for a session this week, visit the PAST Foundation’s Ohio Listening Tour webpage. Share what is or isn’t working and what you think will help students learn and grow.