I-TEAM: Learning loss gap bridged together

Published: Apr. 20, 2023 at 8:50 PM CDT
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BAY, Ark. (KAIT) - Testing season is here for many students across the Natural State, especially in northeast Arkansas.

School districts are going into this testing season hopeful as they are now three years out from the pandemic that caused test scores to tank and learning loss to soar.

Teachers explained that there was a point in the past three years that was scary. Scary for students and education in general, but with one key ingredient, they believe their students are rising to the tests.

“It was detrimental, it was a nightmare, we had so much planning, so much online lesson planning to do. It was something out of our will house,” said Andrew Long, sixth-grade math and science teacher at Bay Elementary School.

The 2019-2020 school year changed education across the country.

“I honestly thought it would be two weeks max and then another week goes by and we are still not sure and then it got to be where I was like, okay we are not coming back,” said Tasha Russell, sixth-grade Language Arts, Reading, and Social Studies teacher at Bay Elementary School.

COVID-19 health protocols closed the doors of many schools in March 2020.

“The big hurdle for us was getting everyone online and actually being able to communicate and be successful with our lessons,” said Long.

This forced educators to find ways to continue teaching their students, virtually.

“There is something to be said about being in a classroom and engaging in those questions that are asked by other students that will trigger something in them and sparks something that makes them understand better,” said Nikki Campbell, principal at Bay High School.

This change in location took a toll on how students were performing on tests, which generally shows how much they are retaining.

“In that year, mid-march was not a terrible time for the shutdown to happen,” said Russell. “The time that I think hurt schools the most and hurt students the most was the next year.”

According to data from the Arkansas Department of Education, in 2019 over 33% of students across the state were in need of support in reading.

There was no data in 2020, but in 2021 when students returned partially in person and virtually, that number increased to over 38% of students needing support in reading.

Russell said she found the key to learning loss over the past few years was, attendance.

“It was tough because our attendance was terrible, we had the ones that were virtual I had about 4 that were very, very consistent on doing their assignments and getting on their Zoom calls,” she said.

The National Center for Education Statistics noted that a recent study showed that absenteeism was associated with negative outcomes and lower achievement in subsequent years.

To bridge the gap and lessen the amount of learning loss, in-person lessons were essential in 2022.

Long said around 90% of students in the district were at school that year. He said this helped jumpstart learning after returning to the classroom fully.

“The attendance is what really sparked us,” he said.

Russell and Long both said challenging content, consistent schedules, and constant practice helped accelerate learning.

“I put books in their hands, and my students, they were just readers, I read to them, they read many books, I have a classroom library full of books they can choose from,” said Russell.

In 2022, data shows that the number of students needing support in reading across the state decreased by just 1%. For educators, this was a small win.

“We did evaluations to see where everybody stood and we built plans from there, we had to backstep some to get everybody back up to speed,” said Long.

This small win changed the course of the district’s learning.

In 2019, 76% of third graders in Bay met their English benchmarks.

Fast forward three years, those same students tested at 81% meeting their English benchmark as sixth-graders.

Now, as testing is underway for some and approaching for others educators feel like they are coming out on the other end of pandemic learning loss.

“I mean they will definitely forever be changed, they will be different students than they were before COVID I think,” said Campbell. “But hopefully in the end they will find the positives and the strengths out of it and it will make them a better person and it will make them a better person on the back end.”

Campbell said she is seeing less test anxiety than last year from their students, which shows students are better prepared.