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D.C. students’ learning loss continued in 2020-2021, widening gaps for at-risk kids, report finds

The District’s schools followed trends seen nationally as schools turned to remote instruction

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D.C. students continued to fall behind in reading and math during the pandemic, with students of color and those from lower-income backgrounds most affected, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report, conducted by EmpowerK12, an education-focused nonprofit group, examined 2020-2021 testing data from students in dozens of District public and public charter schools. The findings suggest that the city’s students have followed a national trend during the pandemic: Most students demonstrated some academic growth, but overall, they fell behind during the period of remote instruction.

“We have students that are the farthest from opportunity … and it didn’t make sense to think that the pandemic was going to make that better,” D.C. acting state superintendent of education Christina Grant said during a panel Tuesday coordinated by EmpowerK12. “What I do try to make sense of is what we know from history — that we have to invest, plan and act.”

An EmpowerK12 study released in December 2020 found that D.C. students had fallen behind during the first year of the pandemic. But the new report shows a fuller timeline of how remote learning has affected students.

‘A lost generation’: Surge of research reveals students sliding backward, most vulnerable worst affected

Overall, students in third through eighth grade fell behind by about five to six months in English language arts and mathematics compared with 2018-2019, according to the report. And students who were designated as “at-risk” — defined as students whose families are homeless or recipients of certain public assistance — fell behind significantly compared with their more affluent peers.

The trend held for students in kindergarten through second grade as well. In 2019, 69 percent of students in those grades showed they were reading at or above their grade level, but as of spring 2021, that number dropped to 51 percent, EmpowerK12 found. The shift among at-risk students was similarly heightened in these age groups. In 2019, 58 percent of at-risk students were reading at or above their grade levels; in spring 2021, just 31 percent were, the report said.

While academic growth overall was lower than usual, math growth returned to normal rates around the middle-school years, according to the study.

What ‘learning loss’ really means

The data was measured according to two tests in education, known as iReady and Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), as well as a collection of leveled reading, to determine students’ abilities. The nearly 30,000 students whose test results were aggregated for the sample closely resemble the demographics of students enrolled in D.C. schools, with some small differences. The report notes, however, that D.C. students’ learning gaps may still be wider than recorded, because 1 in every 8 kids did not participate in the tests. Researchers said they believe those students probably have lower attendance and academic growth rates.

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said during Tuesday’s panel that fighting the pandemic — and vaccinating the city’s communities — would be essential in addressing ongoing learning inequities.

“This report reminds us of the importance of in-person learning, but our primary strategy is to have school buildings that are safe and open, where students can be in with their teachers,” Kihn said.

The kind of teaching kids need right now

Education leaders also pointed to other initiatives they were rolling out to help students catch up. While D.C. schools have returned to in-person instruction, Grant said one of her priorities is ensuring that students who may be in quarantine have access to the technology needed to attend classes remotely.

Grant also pointed to the $41 million that her office has set aside to fund high-intensity tutoring, an initiative education leaders hope will make up for the loss of learning over the past year and a half.

“We take what we know from history — that lack of stability and stress often experienced by our students that are the farthest from opportunity had exacerbated the gaps,” Grant said. “Those things have only grown during the pandemic.”

More on local education

The latest: In Loudoun County, a conservative candidate and a left-leaning candidate were leading in the race for two seats on the school board. Meanwhile, a majority of incumbent school board members in Maryland’s metro area were leading in their reelection bids.

K-12 classrooms: The Montgomery County school system is revisiting safety training after a report of a student with a gun led to a campus lockdown. New safety protocols also are in the works in D.C. after a bus driver crashed a bus and was charged with a DUI. A settlement in a public records lawsuit reveals some of the emails submitted to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s education tip line.

On campus: The University of Maryland has pledged to expand aid for in-state students who have significant financial need. What the twists, turns and drops of roller coasters are teaching Johns Hopkins University students about engineering.