Is remote learning to blame for low test scores?

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Department of Education released data on last year’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests Thursday, showing a weak recovery after steep learning losses sustained during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governor Glenn Youngkin and members of the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) placed blame for the poor performance on remote learning, which was adopted by a small minority of school divisions during the 2020-2021 school year.

“The SOL results released today demonstrate that prolonged school shutdowns undeniably exacerbated the learning loss experienced by Virginia’s students,” Youngkin said. “And the very best anecdote [sic] is in-person education.”

By the Numbers

But data shared by the Department of Education was incomplete and followed unclear criteria, making it hard to verify what effect remote learning actually had in the state.

The state shared these two tables to support claims that remote learning was significantly worse for students than in-person instruction. (Courtesy of VDOE)

“The bottom line is that in-person instruction matters,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow. “When we compare the 2021-2022 data with achievement in 2020-2021 — when the majority of our students were learning remotely or on hybrid schedules — we can see the difference our teachers made once they were reunited with their students in their classrooms.”

When asked whether the state had looked at any subjects outside of Math and Reading, the Director of Communications for VDOE, Charles Pyle, said they had not. He also said the analysis did not account for how students in those schools performed prior to the pandemic.

That means that the difference in scores could be attributable to either remote learning itself or to a tendency for already under-performing school districts to prefer remote learning — even if the remote learning had a positive or no effect on test scores.

Additionally, the VDOE did not share their criteria for categorizing the school divisions, nor did they share the underlying dataset on which the analysis was performed. However, the numbers do show that the vast majority of students were, in fact, learning either, “Mostly,” or, “Nearly All,” in person during the 2020-2021 school year.

Based on the limited data shared by the VDOE, 806,540 of the students who took reading assessments in 2021-2022 had been learning in person in 2020-2021, while just 27,065 were learning “Mostly” or “Nearly All” remotely. Similarly, math test-takers stood at 905,499 and 37,061, respectively.

An Incomplete Recovery

Still, data on overall pass rates across all subjects painted a picture of an incomplete recovery. While scores rebounded from their low of an average 61.3% pass rate in 2020-2021, the overall pass rate of 67% was more than ten points lower than the pre-pandemic rate of 79.2%.

State Superintendent Jillian Balow urged schools to spend federal pandemic recovery funds on strategies like extended learning and after-school programs to help close the gap.

“Teachers are working so hard to help students catch up and meet academic needs,” Balow said. “Schools have the responsibility to target their state and federal pandemic relief funds on proven strategies to address learning loss.”

Meanwhile, Governor Youngkin highlighted the disproportionate impact the pandemic had on learning for those in poorer communities.

“This is a chance for our entire education system to work together to close the achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged and younger learners that arose during school shutdowns,” Youngkin said.

Data shows that the COVID-19 pandemic widened the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and their better-off peers — and the recovery in test scores has been slower for them as well.

While overall pass rates for well-off students dropped 15.3% between 18-19 and 20-21, economically disadvantaged students saw their pass rates plummet by 21.8%. The recovery did little to erase that deficit, with economically disadvantaged students seeing their pass rates improve by just .9% more than their peers.

Youngkin pointed to several provisions of last year’s budget that were designed to address those issues, including $40 million to local school divisions for programs addressing learning loss as well as a combined $17 million to address literacy and reading.

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