Ever since virtual learning began for most students in Spring 2020, experts have been speculating about how this change in learning will affect performance in K-12 education. North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) recently released two reports that analyze student learning and achievement throughout the pandemic, and unfortunately, it is clear that the majority of students experienced learning losses and are behind in certain subjects.
Dr. Terry Stoops serves as Director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, and we welcome him back to Family Policy Matters this week to discuss these two DPI reports, and what can be done to reverse student learning losses.
The first DPI report looked at statewide performance on state standardized tests, and it found that “students had fallen behind in every subject, in every grade with the exception of English II,” says Dr. Stoops.
How far behind have students fallen? DPI’s second report translates the size of these losses into months of learning, explains Dr. Stoops. Bearing in mind roughly 10 months equals one school year, here is just some of the data Dr. Stoops shares from the DPI report:
“When we’re talking about high school math,” warns Dr. Stoops, “this is the math that students need to really master for them to be successful in math and the sciences and in business and all of those math intensive subjects in college.”
“So, I think that in a few years, we’re going to have a brand-new crisis. […] We are going to have students entering our colleges and universities that are way far behind in math (and perhaps less so in English) that will require remedial work to the extent that we’ve never had to provide students remedial work in our community colleges and our universities.”
Dr. Stoops advocates for “high dosage or intensive tutoring” to combat these extensive learning losses. “Small groups of students receiving tutoring services from a very experienced, very capable teacher” for a sustained amount of time is, according to research, the one tried and tested way to address learning loss.
“But unfortunately, we are not seeing a whole lot of movement in the public education system to implementing this high dosage or intensive tutoring despite the fact that our public schools are sitting on billions in federal coronavirus relief funding.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Terry Stoops share more about pandemic learning losses, in Part 1 of a 2-part show. Be sure to tune in next week for Part 2!
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. It’s the end of another school year and a good time to analyze student performance from last year. After much speculation about the possibility of student learning losses through the pandemic, we’re finally starting to have hard data so we can analyze where North Carolina students stand academically in light of the dramatic school changes they experienced since the spring of 2020.
Well, to talk with us about that today, we are welcoming Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation here in North Carolina. He is also co-founder of Carolina Charter Academy in Angier, North Carolina and serves on the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board.
Dr. Terry Stoops, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
DR. TERRY STOOPS: Thank you so much for having me.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, so far, North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction has released two reports that look at student learning and achievement through the pandemic. So, what exactly did they measure?
DR. TERRY STOOPS: Sure. We’ll start with the first report that took student test scores and compared them based on the growth that students were projected to have versus what they actually did have on state tests. It’s important to know that North Carolina uses growth as one of the measures of student performance, and that’s how we can determine students are behind—by comparing where they should be based on their past performance on state tests and where they are. What we found was not surprising, but still really, really shocking.
I’ll talk about the first report first because this was a report that looked at statewide performance on state standardized tests, and these mainly focused on the math, reading, and science tests that were required by the federal government to administer each year. This first study found that students had fallen behind in every subject, in every grade, with the exception of English II—this is the high school English course. You might think, “Well, what happened in English II that students are actually where they should be academically?” Researchers have no idea. We might hear from the Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration—the main entity that’s conducting these studies—an explanation about why English II was spared, but we, at this point, have no idea why English II students are performing where they should be despite the closure of schools. And that really was the overriding factor of why students are not performing where they should be: is that when you closed schools and you went to online learning, that learning was not the quality that it needed to be in order to make sure that students were where they should be in their academic achievement.
It’s also worth noting that this first study found that across every student subgroup, there were learning losses. This is important to note because there was an expectation among some people that our advanced students—the academically and intellectually gifted students—were not going to have any learning loss. These were students that typically have a lot of support from home, that have a lot of natural talent, and many believe that because of that, then they would be shielded from the learning loss that we encountered with all of these other students. But that wasn’t the case. Even our gifted and talented students experienced learning loss, albeit at rates that were lower than some other groups, like our low income, our special needs, and our low-performing students. Those groups struggled as we predicted they would, but the students that were academically and intellectually gifted struggled just as much as the typical North Carolina student.
A few other takeaways that I think that are worth noting: the first is between male and female students. There was an expectation that male students were going to be hit harder, that male students really needed that social interaction—as all students do—to be successful in class. But the test scores didn’t bear that out. In fact, we found that female students had a greater amount of learning loss than male students did. Of course, we are still trying to understand why that is, but I think it’s very concerning that female students who’ve traditionally outperformed male students had fallen behind at greater rates than their male counterparts during the pandemic.
Now, we may wonder just how big were these learning losses? The initial report, the first report that was published, put it in “effect sizes,” and that’s something that us social scientists really like to do is to use effect sizes, because they allow us to use the same metric across different groups. But the second report published by the Department of Public Instruction and their Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration is the real startling report, because it translated these effect sizes into months of learning. So, now we actually know how many months of learning students are behind in English and math. And I’ll start with the good news. First is that in English, there are some grades—third grade, fifth grade students—where the learning loss only amounts to a couple months. I think the thinking is that we will be able to catch up those few months of learning loss throughout the subsequent school years without having to provide any additional or special services to students. In other grades in English/Language Arts, such as fourth grade and seventh grade, it’s closer to seven months of learning. So, this is really where we start to see some serious learning losses when students are seven months behind in a 10-month school year. That is almost three quarters of a school year. So, we have to really keep our eye on our English/Language Arts instruction, especially in elementary and middle school.
But math is devastating when you look at how many months behind students are. In fifth grade: seven months. In sixth grade: 10 months. In seventh grade: 11 and a half months. In eighth grade: almost 15 months. And Math I, which is usually ninth grade students, it’s 15 and a quarter months behind in learning. Now, here’s what’s really scary about that Math I figure: is that Math I forms the basis for all high school math that a student will have to take in later years, meaning that those high school teachers will have to go back and reteach a lot of the things students should have learned in Math I. The other problem is that when we’re talking about high school math, this is the math that students need to really master for them to be successful in math and the sciences and in business and all of those math intensive subjects in college.
So, I think that in a few years, we’re going to have a brand-new crisis. We know that learning loss occurred at great extent in grades K-12, but we are going to have students entering our colleges and universities that are way far behind in math—and perhaps less so in English—that will require remedial work to the extent that we’ve never had to provide students remedial work in our community colleges and our universities. This is going to be something that I don’t think, as a state, we really thought much about, because right now, most of our focuses on dealing with learning loss are on the K-12 education system. Rightfully so, but we are going to have to think seriously about what we do about students being grossly under prepared for college-level instruction in English and in math.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, you jumped right to the colleges are going to have to provide remedial instruction. Has there been any discussion about we’re going to extend the number of years that students are in high school or anything like that?
DR. TERRY STOOPS: That is really the question we need to be asking, and we need to be thinking about creative approaches to dealing with the learning loss. There is a great deal of empirical research that tells us the one thing, the one tried and tested way to address learning loss is something called high dosage or intensive tutoring. It’s a very simple concept: small groups of students receiving tutoring services in small groups from a very experienced, very capable teacher, either after class or after school or during the summer. It has to be intensive and sustained, and it has to be delivered by high quality instructor. We know that this is the way to address learning loss, but unfortunately, we are not seeing a whole lot of movement in the public education system to implementing this high dosage or intensive tutoring, despite the fact that our public schools are sitting on billions (with a B) in federal coronavirus relief funding that they could use to contract with retired teachers, the nonprofit or private sector, or perhaps teachers that would be willing to take on additional duties to be able to provide the intensive tutoring—especially in math—that our students are going to need in order to be successful after they graduate. Instead, a lot of this federal money has been used for teacher bonuses and teacher raises for those that are already in the classroom. These are usually across the board raises and across the board bonuses rather than the kind of targeted interventions that are required to make sure our students are caught up.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay, so this billions of dollars in federal COVID funding, you said we’re sitting on it. Who’s “we”? Who’s sitting on it?
DR. TERRY STOOPS: The school boards and the General Assembly. But mostly it’s the school boards, because one of the philosophies—and this actually wasn’t an objectionable philosophy—from the Biden Administration is that school districts understand best how the money should be spent. So, school boards have a tremendous amount of money at their disposal. Some larger school boards like Wake County, it’s hundreds of millions of dollars. Some smaller school districts, mostly in rural communities, it’s in the $10 million – $20 million range that is unspent. They don’t have to spend the money immediately. They can spend the money anytime between now and 2024, and perhaps even further out if that money isn’t spent by the deadline that’s been set by the federal government. There’s almost no restriction on how school boards can use the money. So, if they found that they needed to replace a ventilation system, they can use the money for that. There’s almost no restriction.
Now, I’m all for local control. I believe that the closer you get to the child, the better able you are to make decisions on what that child needs. But a school district understands that—or should understand that—we are not going to get learning loss addressed in any other way than their ability to use the money that they have right now to address student learning loss through intensive or high dosage tutoring. The science on this is settled. I think that it’s an approach that any school board that is thinking seriously about learning loss as a problem should be considering. Yet, I find startlingly few districts even talking about learning loss, let alone starting to implement tutoring programs to address it.
– END PART ONE –