Schools across America are racing to make up for time they lost during the pandemic by budgeting billions of dollars for tutoring, summer camps and longer school days and trying to untangle which students need help most urgently after two years of disruptions.
Many schools saw large numbers of students fall under the radar when learning went online for the pandemic. Many skipped class, tests and homework. Record numbers of families opted out of annual standardized tests, leaving some districts with little evidence of how students were doing in reading and math.
Now districts are trying to address that lack of information by adding new tests, training teachers to spot learning gaps and exploring new ways to identify students who need help. In many districts, the findings are being used to guide the spending of billions of dollars in federal relief that's meant to address learning loss and can be used in myriad ways.
New York City is adding three rounds of testing this year, hoping to pinpoint which students are behind. Similar tests are being used in Virginia’s Fairfax County, which is allotting larger shares of funding to schools with lower scores. Chicago is prioritizing students using a ranking system that factors in their grades and also rates of COVID-19 and violent crime near their homes.
“Understanding completely where students are and what those gaps or challenges might be for them — that is going to be a challenge for us,” said Debbie Durrence, the data officer for Gwinnett County, Georgia.
Her team, which serves the 180,000-student district, has started tracking a new metric: “missingness.” In regular reports, the team aims to log what is known about each student’s learning progress, but also what is unknown. Schools have been asked to help fill in gaps, and students are being tested more frequently.
For students, disruptions related to the pandemic are still reverberating. Now that Lorena Rivera’s twin daughters are back in the classroom in Boston, some of their teachers have quit mid-year or gotten sick with COVID-19. The 14-year-old twins struggled with virtual learning, feeling like they had nowhere to turn when they had trouble with math problems.
“There was a lot of giving up — it was hard,” Rivera said.
Her daughters, Elizabeth and Amerie Allder, have since found support through a local tutoring program, Boston Partners in Education, but Rivera wonders whether their school knows how her daughters are doing.
“I’m not sure because every time you meet with someone, they give you something different,” she said. “Some teachers say they’re doing great, others say they can do better.”
Early results of data gathering by some of the country’s biggest school districts confirm what many had feared: Groups of students that already faced learning gaps before the pandemic, including Black and Hispanic students and those from low-income families, appear to be behind in even greater numbers now.
In Fairfax County, tests given this fall found that 68% of Hispanic elementary school students need intervention in math, up from 55% in 2019. Students learning English saw a similar increase. A quarter of white students were flagged for help, up from 19% in 2019.
Last year, public schools in Houston found that 45% of Black and Hispanic students had at least one failing grade. That was up from 30% in 2019, and nearly three times the rate of white students.
Similar inequities are turning up at schools across the country, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a national research group. It suggests that longstanding inequities are widening, she said, which could translate to deeper learning and income gaps for generations to come.
States have been raising alarms, urging schools to focus on students who spent more time away from school. Utah’s education officials found that students who missed last year’s exams were far more likely to be Native American or Hispanic, prompting an urgent call to find those students and “prevent them from falling into an academic spiral.”
Many bigger districts already had testing regimes and data systems to find students who are falling behind, while some are scrambling to catch up. But not all major districts are analyzing the data or making it public.
New York City is spending $36 million on new testing, but officials said they don’t have district-wide results. Instead, they said the tests are being used at the school level to help teachers support students.
Schools in Chicago were encouraged to use a new screening exam, but a district spokesperson declined to provide the results.
In Fairfax County, where more than 20% of students opted out of state tests last year, district officials attempted to fill in the gaps by giving students informal, low-stakes tests to measure their progress this fall.
“We’ve been working to figure out which students need the most targeted support most quickly,” said Amy Goodloe, principal of Rocky Run Middle School. Teachers have used test results to find concepts students struggle with and create plans to get them up to speed, she said.
The results are also guiding the district as it divides $188 million in federal funding among nearly 200 schools. In many buildings, the money is being used to add staff who help students in small groups, or to hire tutors for more personal help after school.
Testing increases in some districts have led to pushback from parents and teachers who say it takes away from valuable classroom time, but proponents say it’s a crucial step toward understanding the impact of the pandemic.
In Texas, a law passed last year requires 30 hours of tutoring for students who did not pass state exams last year. It applies to students who failed tests but also those who didn’t take exams.
In Houston, the state’s largest district, officials are hiring more tutors but haven’t added new tests.
“Increasing the numbers of assessments isn’t going to yield a different result, it just would impact the amount of instructional time we have as a district,” said Margarita Gardea, who oversees elementary curriculum and instruction.
Finding tutors, though, has been a challenge in many areas amid a sudden surge in demand.
In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, school officials created a new learning loss index based on assessments, attendance and state exams, and then ranked students based on need. The district brought back retired teachers to work as tutors on a temporary basis, and it’s expanding summer school, Saturday classes and other programs.
So far, test results have shown some progress toward getting students up to grade level, but thousands of students are still behind.
“The bottom line is that we have such a loss that it will take some time,” said Gisela Feild, administrative director of assessment, research and data analysis. “You can’t make up that kind of a loss in one year.”
Associated Press reporter Kathleen Foody contributed from Chicago.