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Sunday, August 1, 2021

COMMENTARY: The road to recovery: What last year’s data can tell us about next year’s plans

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

With the 2020-21 school year in the rearview mirror, now is the opportunity to take a breath and turn our attention to how we want to approach the upcoming school year to maximize recovery.

As data experts, we believe that one of the best ways to map out the direction to move forward is to understand where we’ve been. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education has named data analysis on student performance as one of the four key strategies needed to address lost instructional time due to the pandemic.

Given the results from benchmark assessments administered last year, the evidence is clear that interrupted instructional opportunities last spring are negatively affecting students’ ability to learn and grow, especially for students of color and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

We recently released results from this sort of analysis, based on winter 2021 interim assessment data from 19 districts in California and 54 districts in South Carolina. Using data from the NWEA MAP, Renaissance Star and Curriculum Associates iReady, we assessed how much students’ growth is faster or slower than their growth over the same time period in the past.

We found evidence that students are not yet experiencing “recovery” from Covid-related school closures. The impact of the pandemic on students’ learning and well-being is far from over. In California (where more than 70% of students were still attending virtual-only schools as of March, when we began analyzing winter assessment data), student learning was lagging behind by about 2.6 months in English language arts and 2.5 months in math.

We also find concerning differences among students from different backgrounds. Our results show that students in California who are English learners, economically disadvantaged, low prior achieving, homeless, Native American and Pacific Islander, Latino and Black are experiencing more severe impacts due to lost instructional time than their peers.

We see similar results in South Carolina, though the differences are smaller in magnitude, especially in math.

To expand our understanding of the impact of the pandemic on students, we also examined data from a well-being survey developed by the CORE Districts, a collaboration of eight California school districts working to improve student achievement. The survey, which was administered to more than 30,000 students in three California school districts at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, was supported by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and Education Analytics.  A few of the findings include:

  • Students attending schools serving a higher percentage of students receiving free/reduced lunch and students of color reported spending less time each day on their schoolwork and reported that they were less likely to access their schoolwork online.
  • Schools where students reported higher well-being tended to have higher academic achievement.
  • Older students’ interpersonal well-being was most strongly associated with higher average academic achievement and average academic growth.

These results suggest that students’ well-being affects their learning, and their well-being may have gotten worse, rather than better, over the course of the 2020-21 school year. 

Taken together, what these data mean is that even though virtual learning continued to improve as teachers, administrators and school systems learned to adapt to the challenges it brought — and even though we see that students are continuing to learn and grow — the effects of the pandemic continue. Consequently, strategies to mitigate the damage are only just beginning, with the road to recovery likely taking years or decades to fully complete.

When students return to the classroom this fall, it will be critical to gain clarity on where each individual student is in their academic growth so that educators can target interventions toward students who need them most, track recovery efforts and learn what is working and for whom.

Monitoring students’ well-being and mental health is an equally important — and in many ways, more challenging — aspect of the strategies that districts and states must implement on the road to recovery.

Many districts and states are planning (or already implementing) strategies like high-quality tutoring programs, summer learning and enrichment opportunities, and accelerated learning approaches.

But without data to track those efforts, there can be no data-driven decision-making, and certainly no deep understanding of when we have indeed made progress toward recovery.

•••

Libby Pier is the director of impact at Education Analytics, a nonprofit organization that uses data and analytics to improve outcomes for students and the education system.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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