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What Can Spring 2021 Assessments Tell Us About Learning Loss?

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

As spring 2021 state assessment results come in across the country, the academic impacts of COVID-19 are no longer theoretical. The preponderance of data points in the same direction: student learning was significantly impacted by the pandemic. States are reporting significant decreases in math, reading, and science proficiency since 2019 — with students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income families among the most impacted.

How did we get here, and what can schools, districts, and policymakers do about it? 

Learning loss is not a new concept in education, although it might go by many names. In its simplest form, it’s the result of a significant disruption in education that can lead students to lose previously acquired knowledge or skills, or shift to a learning trajectory that takes them further from grade level standards. Pre-pandemic studies looked at two kinds of learning loss 1) the “summer slide” or “summer setback” that many students experience between one school year and the next as well as 2) the short- and long-term academic effects of school closures due to weather and natural disasters. 

In the rocky shifts to and from remote learning (and back again) over the past year and a half — often without sufficient support for educators and families — it seemed very likely that students would experience some form of learning loss, perhaps in entirely different ways than previously understood. Emerging studies throughout 2020-21 consistently showed that the negative academic effects of COVID-19 disruptions were real, and were most pronounced among historically marginalized student groups. But the idea of learning loss received surprising pushback, mostly from those who felt the term stigmatized students or blamed educators for circumstances outside of their control. Some claim that learning loss is a “myth” and indicative of “deficit framing” because it ignores the student learning during the pandemic outside of traditional curricula. Examples of non-traditional learning include resiliency, creativity, and technology skills. However, acknowledging the value of non-traditional skills doesn’t erase the importance or urgency of developing academic skills and knowledge that are essential for college and career readiness. 

As states across the country analyze spring 2021 assessments, the results are often startling. Some examples from 2020-21 school year data include:

  • North Carolina, where student scores decreased across all end-of-year assessments. In most cases, fewer than half of students were meeting grade level expectations.
  • Minnesota, with a 7 percentage point decrease in students reading on grade level and an 11 percentage point decrease in on-grade-level math proficiency.
  • Virginia, where the percentage of students passing state tests is down by 28 percentage points in math, 22 percentage points in science, and 9 percentage points in reading.
  • Tennessee, which experienced a drop in overall statewide proficiency of five percentage points — with Nashville and Memphis schools that serve the largest proportions of students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and English language learners seeing an 8 and 11 percentage point decrease, respectively, in overall proficiency in math, social studies, reading, and science. 

There are important caveats to these results at the student, school, and state level, and comparisons to prior years should be made with caution. Students may have also been tested under unusual pandemic conditions and some states shortened or changed their assessments this year with permission from the U.S. Department of Education. Furthermore, some, but not all, states have reported atypically low test participation rates. Federal law usually mandates greater than 95% test participation at the state, district, and school level. North Carolina and Tennessee reported 90% and 95% student participation, respectively, but only 75-80% of students in Virginia and 78% of students in Minnesota took those states’ assessments. 

Even with these caveats, evidence is mounting that learning loss is a real challenge facing schools across the country. Some see these data as representative of “arbitrary” academic standards. While one can reasonably debate the utility of academic standards that align with age-based grade levels, the fact remains that, as education author and commentator Elliot Haspel put it, skills that students would have otherwise learned to a certain level during a normal school year were not learned during the pandemic year. 

It’s time to move beyond the semantics of what to call the problem and instead figure out what we’re going to do about it. Here are four key recommendations for states and local school districts to address learning loss in the current 2021-22 school year:

  • Continue leveraging data to provide targeted academic support by regularly administering interim assessments to monitor student progress and using the data to drive rapid cycles of improvement — where changes in strategy or approach to academic intervention can happen in real-time as needed. 
  • Adopt accelerated learning strategies in lieu of traditional remediation and train teachers on effective accelerated learning pedagogy, which has been found to be more effective than traditional remediation in helping students regain pre-pandemic skills and pick up where they left off — especially for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. 
  • Supplement increased academic investments with robust mental health supports by providing resources for adequate numbers of trained professional counselors and social workers, wraparound services, and the high-quality delivery of evidenced-based social and emotional learning curricula. 
  • Adopt approaches to intentionally teach and assess non-academic skills in a traditional school setting, recognizing that schools are responsible for teaching students essential life skills such as time management, goal setting, self advocacy, effective communication, and resiliency.

Acknowledging learning loss does not mean that students learned nothing. It does recognize that students’ academic learning experiences were deeply affected by the pandemic in ways that need urgent action. Students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income families have been disproportionately impacted by pandemic learning conditions. 

It’s important that we name the challenge and it’s incumbent upon states and local school districts to invest the resources into addressing this issue, or risk further exacerbating long-standing educational inequities. 

Back to School Leader Q&A: Superintendent Veronica Vijil on Taking Risks and Leaning Into Partnerships

As the 2021-22 school year begins across the country, we asked a few education leaders to share their insights on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Join us for a three-part Q&A series exploring the highs and lows of the past 18 months through the lens of dynamic education leaders.

Fabens Independent School District* is a K-12 traditional public school system located in a small but mighty rural community outside of El Paso, Texas. Under the leadership of Dr. Veronica Vijil the district’s first Latina superintendent Fabens ISD has continued to serve as the hub of its community for students, families, teachers, and staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I recently connected with Dr. “V” as she’s known by some in the community, to discuss how Fabens ISD has navigated through the innumerable ups and downs of the pandemic and how she’s poised to lead her district in the 2021-22 school year, now underway.

Nate Geller:
Tell us about Fabens ISD and the professional path in education that led to your current role.

Dr. Veronica Vijil:
I’m the superintendent of Fabens ISD. We’re a diamond in the rough and serve about 2,000 students in a small, rural community. 99% of our students are Hispanic and roughly 91% of families are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, although districtwide, every student gets free breakfast and lunch. 

I was born and raised in El Paso, and began my 30-plus year teaching career in its classrooms. My location meandered but I’ve always been rooted in education. I taught in public and parochial schools in Indiana and Texas. I never thought administration was my path but opening a middle school and serving as an associate superintendent in El Paso set me on my way. There, I began to prepare myself for a superintendent role and joining Fabens ISD has been a dream come true. Leading a district with a rich history in an area where my family has deep roots is special — Fabens ISD neighbors a small district where my parents were born and raised. I feel honored to lead here.

NG:
What’s Fabens’ mission? What are you most proud of accomplishing in pursuit of its mission?

VV:
In rural districts, there’s often a misconception that parents aren’t involved or aren’t interested in their children’s education because we’re surrounded by farms that require hard manual labor. The fact is, we are a rural farming community and our community values education immensely. Fabens ISD is in a small enough area that we don’t have a mayor or city council. So the schools are the hub of our community; everyone counts on us. 

Our mission is to work together to create a positive and lasting impact through multiple learning opportunities. What’s the key ingredient? Leveling the playing field in whatever way we can so that students have choices and the same opportunities as their peers in other Texas schools or across the country.

We leverage what our area has available to promote opportunities for students through support from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) starting with 1) embracing the bilingualism that exists here, and 2) giving high school students opportunities to earn college credit or industrial certification. It’s very uncommon for a district of our size to be able to offer high schoolers:

  • Access to early college credits and college-level courses through our partnership with El Paso Community College that enables students to earn an associate’s degree by the time they graduate.
  • T-STEM-focused coursework in grades six through 12. Under that umbrella, we’re able to offer students different pathways like medical classes, rocket coursework in partnership with the University of Texas at El Paso which offer us access to their college students and professors, and more. One of our students recently became a certified drone pilot. 
  • P-TECH, which is also in partnership with El Paso Community College, enables students to have internships with local businesses. We even offer internships within our own school district and have students take courses for industry certifications in things like operating and working on our diesel school buses.

At the end of these programs, our students are already ahead of the game. That’s what we call leveling the playing field. 

NG:
Contextualize the great work happening in your school district in the past year and a half. As you look back on the 2020-21 school year, what were some of the wins and challenges your team experienced during an immensely difficult time? How have you maintained student engagement? 

VV:
It’s a cliché but teamwork is what’s getting us through COVID-19. It’s truly building capacity in others that enables me to advocate for the various needs of our school district. While members of my team were putting out COVID-19 fires, I participated in a recurring phone call with TEA representatives to report on what we were going through, ask for needed resources, and advocate for our community. My persistence led to Fabens ISD becoming a pilot district for rapid COVID-19 tests for eligible students and staff. We were able to make so many connections and forged partnerships that evolved into open clinics for our community to do drive-through testing, blood drives, flu clinics, and more. 

We also had to overcome an obstacle common in rural communities like ours: technology and broadband access. We don’t have fiber that extends throughout the area, so at the outset of the pandemic we were caught off guard because we were not a 1:1 device district where every student receives a Chromebook. We had to pivot and quickly figure out how to get technology into students’ hands and then issue hotspots to students in need. Our partnerships in this realm will lead to lasting change through greater access to WiFi, internet, and broadband. 

At one point, El Paso was a national hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks and was on the news for two weeks straight. It forced parents to keep children at home even though our doors were always open for those who couldn’t log kids on and had to send them to school. After the peak in our area passed, there was a lot of residual fear and anxiety. In the spring 2021 semester, we had 30% of students return for in-person instruction and about 70% remain at home for remote learning. Of the 70% who are U.S. citizens, some returned to family in Mexico and haven’t been allowed to cross back over the border. Getting lessons to those students has been a challenge but we do whatever it takes for our students even if it means handing families packets at the international bridge, which we did.

NG:
Given Bellwether’s work with Fabens ISD, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. What’s top of mind for you as you look into the 2021-22 school year? Tell us about any early wins you experienced in the first few weeks as well as continued challenges.

VV:
We didn’t know how many students were going to come back. We can do survey after survey, but we weren’t going to know until the first day of school. We moved our start date up early this year to Aug. 2 to have an extended-year calendar. Lo and behold, more than 95% of our kids have returned! Granted, there’s still a lot of anxiety and we battle misinformation on a daily basis to assure students and families that ours is a safe school district for them to return to.  

We’ve also done a number of COVID-19 vaccine clinics, which have been well attended. In El Paso county, 70% of residents are vaccinated. A few weeks ago, we had a clinic in our middle school and 140 people showed up for shots, 40 of whom were our own students. We’ll continue to promote the vaccine, so that’s a win. We had another vaccine clinic on Aug. 18 and I extended invites to two neighboring school districts in Hudspeth county. They hadn’t yet had vaccine clinics so I told them to load their school buses and come to Fabens ISD. Other districts have reached out and offered opportunities for testing and vaccines. Nothing can happen without partnerships.

We’ve also continued to give students a voice. We had “Senior Sunrise” on Aug. 18. In the midst of all the chaos and receiving notice at 10 p.m. the evening prior that a mask mandate was reactivated for all of El Paso county, on a dime we were able to not allow the politics to be a distraction and focused on safely celebrating our students. We gathered that next morning for the Senior Sunrise and honored our longstanding school traditions as a community. Senior Sunrise is a time where all high school seniors and their sponsors and administrators gather at our football stadium and wait for the sun to rise in celebration of the beginning of their senior year. It’s followed by a senior breakfast to kick the year off with a spirit of collegiality and friendship. At the end of each school year, we host a “Senior Sunset” to honor a successfully completed year and new adventures ahead for graduates. We made these traditions happen last year and this year, and I’m so proud of our community’s perseverance.

NG:
You mentioned the learning loss that happened over the last 18 months, exacerbated by a lack of internet connectivity and students moving back to Mexico. What specifically are you focused on academically this year to help recoup that lost ground?

VV:
That’s a great question. We have an academic acceleration focus for each major grade level band. There’s an emphasis on early childhood pre-K through third grade students to have a curriculum rich in setting and building foundations. Those teachers are charged with identifying skills students didn’t grasp as a basic foundation to catch them up. 

Students in fourth through eighth grade will be focused on internalizing high-quality reading language arts curriculum to ensure that we expose students to rigorous, TEKS-aligned grade level content every day and apply interventions where appropriate. 

For middle school-level math, we received a grant enabling teachers to closely examine lesson cycles to learn where gaps exist and how we can move forward with targeted, just-in-time interventions.

At our high school, our dual focus is on math and ELA. We used a portion of our federal ESSER funds to hire additional tutors and teachers to lower class sizes. It’s a challenge, because other Region 19 districts are looking within the same talent pools in their recruitment efforts. 

NG:
Is there anything else you’d like to share in closing?

VV:
I think it’s important for everyone to know that sometimes as a leader, you have to take calculated risks. For example, when I found out from the local health authority that mask mandates were reinstated, I thought I’d have an emergency board meeting and contacted my two neighboring superintendents (both of whom are female). I asked them if they were calling emergency meetings and they said, “No, it’s done. We already messaged it out, here’s what we sent if you’d like to use any of it.” My relationships, ongoing collaboration, and partnerships create a mutual trust that enables me to replicate best practices and take risks from time to time. Instead of calling the board and asking permission, I decided to move quickly and ask for forgiveness later. How can I send kids back to school when I haven’t reminded parents they need to send them with a mask?

(*Editorial note: Dr. Veronica Vijil and Fabens ISD are Bellwether clients.)

Opinion: K-12 Schools Should Focus Federal Recovery Funds on Equitable Initiatives to Support Students

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 includes $123 billion to K-12 education through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and $39 billion for higher education through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. 

Ahead of the upcoming 2021-22 school year, state and local education officials nationwide are beginning to spend funds on a wide range of programs in K-12 and postsecondary education. 

Bellwether’s Alex Spurrier argues that Louisville, Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public School system is making a $75 million mistake by using pandemic relief funds to give every permanent district employee a $5,000 bonus.

Every dollar spent on bonus payments to address a phantom teacher retention problem is a dollar that won’t go toward supporting the needs of the kids who attend JCPS schools — a mistake JCPS is making 75 million times over. Should JCPS’ limited education recovery funding really be used to further expand economic and racial inequality in our city?

A more targeted retention bonus program could have been modeled after successful efforts to retain effective educators in high-needs schools. Or it could have focused on specific positions for which vacancies are an issue, such as custodial and food service positions. Instead, most of this blanket windfall of cash will end up subsidizing a relatively affluent segment of our community that didn’t once have to worry about their next paycheck — something few families can relate to in a district where 66% of students are economically disadvantaged.”

Read more from Alex Spurrier’s recent Louisville Courier-Journal op-ed, here.

Committing to Continuous Improvement in Schools: A Customizable Workbook

Figure 1: Bellwether’s refined continuous improvement cycle

Bellwether’s Academic and Program Strategy team partnered with K-12 schools in more than a dozen district and charter networks across the country in the 2020-21 academic year to adopt continuous improvement (CI) cycles that diagnose and reverse unfinished student learning through an iterative, evidence-based approach. In this final blog post, the team provides a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context. 

Last week, we unpacked the increasing value of continuous improvement (CI) cycles in education settings and included reflections from four partner schools on what Bellwether’s distinct CI process looks like in practice. 

In Bellwether’s refined CI approach, the technical and adaptive components of the cycle (Figure 1, represented by a circled “T” and “A”) are intentionally blended. This approach enables school leadership to ground CI plans in measurable goal-based data metrics within aligned, agile teams and coalitions focused on supporting seamless execution on behalf of students. 

As schools reopen this fall, leaders and educators will need to get more strategic and efficient about diagnosing and reversing unfinished student learning in their unique school settings. Bellwether’s Continuous Improvement in Schools Workbook provides a customized way to do that. 

We hope this workbook will be a useful tool as school leaders assess and respond to unfinished student learning this fall and beyond.

It’s Time for a New, Refined Commitment to Continuous Improvement in Schools

Figure 1: Bellwether’s refined continuous improvement cycle

Bellwether’s Academic and Program Strategy team partnered with K-12 schools in more than a dozen districts and charter networks across the country in the 2020-21 academic year to adopt continuous improvement (CI) cycles that diagnose and reverse unfinished student learning through an iterative, evidence-based approach. In this first of two blog posts, the team unpacks Bellwether’s comprehensive approach to CI and what each step in the process looks like in K-12 school settings. Next week, stay tuned for a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context. 

The pandemic and its disproportionate impact on students from historically marginalized communities underscores the value of continuous improvement (CI) as a framework for understanding the depth of unfinished learning and responding to it in an urgent, data-driven, and adaptive manner. In the past decade, CI has worked its way into the lexicon of educators, largely due to the Carnegie Foundation’s plan-do-study-act cycle that has been applied to diverse education improvement efforts from implementing ESSA plans to closing achievement and opportunity gaps. This growing education application of CI draws on more than 30 years of CI best practices in improving products, services, or processes through successive, rapid, evidence-based cycles in a range of sectors. 

Since fall 2020, Bellwether has supported more than a dozen districts and charter networks in their CI efforts, within virtual and hybrid settings, and has developed a balanced approach to the process attuned to current realities in the field. Bellwether’s CI cycle (Figure 1) follows a familiar four-step cadence (“Envision-Execute-Examine-Enact”), but builds on prior models by adding a high-impact adaptive leadership action to what’s typically been viewed as a predominantly technical process. This modification — based on 21st century change management research from Chip and Dan Heath, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, and Dr. John Kotter — is grounded in the idea that while CI’s technical elements are critical to understand what needs to happen, the cycle ultimately doesn’t lead to sustained change without careful consideration of how that change will occur. 

In Bellwether’s refined approach to CI, the technical and adaptive components of the cycle (Figure 1, represented by a circled “T” and “A”) are intentionally blended. This approach enables school leadership to ground CI plans in measurable goal-based data metrics within aligned, agile teams and coalitions focused on supporting seamless execution on behalf of students.

What does this look like in practice?

Four of the schools Bellwether supported this year, each with its own unique context and focus, weigh in:

1. Envision

Achievers Early College Prep Charter School, a public charter middle school in Trenton, New Jersey, built and implemented a new, data-informed intervention program to accelerate the academic growth of its most vulnerable students. The technical work of the CI Envision stage consisted of AECP setting a vision to create a data-driven intervention program that would provide the right content to the right students at the right time. AECP then established a clear goal to leverage its intervention program to have 80% of its highest-need students reach 1.75 to 2 years of academic growth, as measured by the NWEA MAP assessment. Finally, AECP built a progress monitoring system to look at grade level aligned daily exit tickets in intervention and core classes to measure the effectiveness of both prerequisite intervention content and grade level aligned content. On the adaptive side, AECP built a coalition by having a strong eighth grade teacher team pilot this approach in its first CI cycle, enabling teachers to better troubleshoot problems in real time and facilitate training for the sixth and seventh grade teams in future CI cycles.

In AECP’s words: “[This CI cycle] improved our reflection on our targeted areas for improvement. We have been more strategic on creating intervention goals and maintaining strong leadership initiatives throughout our pilot.”

2. Execute

Seguin Independent School District, a K-12 traditional public school district outside of San Antonio, Texas, centered its CI work on developing teacher instructional capacity in a virtual academy. The technical work of the CI Execute stage consisted of a team taking action on its plan by hosting biweekly, district-wide Professional Learning Communities on virtual instruction, facilitating grade level planning time aligned to those instructional moves, and conducting 1:1 observations and coaching for virtual teachers. During this process, the SISD team gathered data and monitored progress on teacher and leader attendance, engagement, and perception of transferability of new strategies to the classroom. On the adaptive side, the team remained focused on designing high-quality supports aligned to the See it. Name it. Do it. Framework and the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s Virtual Look-Fors. However, SISD also had to remain agile by adjusting programs, processes, and communications as it responded to an historic set of regional ice storms, ongoing staffing shifts related to virtual instruction, and survey feedback from teachers. 

In SISD’s words: “The structures and logistics were set by the project plan and covered by the central office. This meant we had the capacity and brain space to respond to shifting circumstances and teacher needs as they arose.”

3. Examine

LEEP Dual Language Academy, a K-2 public charter school in Brooklyn, New York, focused on evaluating and coaching effective lesson planning and execution for guided reading in a hybrid setting. On the technical side of the CI Examine stage, LEEP measured impact by analyzing both process and efficacy data for its CI strategy. The team examined process data by analyzing the consistency of its strategy implementation, and dug into efficacy data to see how both teacher practice and student achievement outcomes were impacted. In this stage, the team identified the following key takeaways: (1) they were less consistent in implementing coaching and feedback on lesson execution and would need to make this shift in the second cycle of CI to drive impact, and (2) they saw less reading growth from virtual kindergarten students and identified the schedule, reading group size, and content prioritization as opportunities to address in the second cycle. The team’s adaptive work of celebrating small wins focused on noting the increase of consistency in lesson plan submission and feedback to teachers in guided reading. They also celebrated mid-year growth on the STEP assessment in second grade with 49% of students growing two reading levels or more after one month of implementation. 

In LEEP’s words: “After examining our data, I think that we have remained focused and nimble in our implementation and this has been done through careful data analysis to then inform next steps and any modifications needed to the plan.”

4. Enact

Promise Community School at Baker-Ripley, a small public charter school network in Houston, Texas, piloted a “Just In Time” (JIT) intervention model for elementary math instruction in a hybrid setting. The technical work of the team’s Enact stage centered on translating key takeaways from its first cycle of JIT intervention to make measurable shifts for a second cycle. In the first cycle of implementing the continuous JIT intervention strategy, the team saw a 30%-point increase in mastery for virtual students, however students’ proficiency fluctuated between 50 to 70%. In order to increase consistency of virtual student mastery, the Promise team shifted its data analysis to focus on remote learners by (1) analyzing remote student work and misconceptions, and (2) increasing engagement strategies during small-group virtual instruction. From an adaptive standpoint, the Promise team focused on clearly communicating adjustments for cycle 2, reinvesting the pilot team by including a rationale and updated goals for the shift, and inspiring through a reiteration of the bright spots observed in cycle 1. 

In Promise’s words: “It’s never too late to reset expectations (we reset in January). We use data to help zoom in on places for focus and problem solving, and we need to be flexible and innovative with what works for our kids.”


We hope that Bellwether’s CI cycle framework and glimpses into its application in schools help educators begin to think about how this process could live in their unique school settings. For questions or comments, please feel free to
email us, and stay tuned next week for a customizable CI workbook for use in any school context.