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D.C. students are falling behind in remote school, with vulnerable students faring worse, data suggests

A student reads her favorite book at her home in Southeast Washington.
A student reads her favorite book at her home in Southeast Washington. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Students from low-income D.C. families are falling further behind their more affluent classmates during the prolonged school closures, according to a study released Thursday examining fall assessment data of students in traditional public and charter schools.

The study — conducted by the nonprofit education data firm EmpowerK12 — determined that some student learning loss is not as dire as feared in the spring, but students in the nation’s capital are still losing months of academic progress in reading and math during virtual learning.

Similar to national trends, D.C. students lost more ground in math than in reading, according to the study.

This is just the latest batch of data showing that students across the country are falling behind in school. Failing grades are up. Attendance is down. College applications are down.

The data points and methodology of these studies differ, but they all seem to land on a similar conclusion: Students of color and from poor families, who already lagged behind their classmates before the pandemic, are faring far worse during remote learning than other students.

New surge of data shows students sliding backward, most vulnerable worst affected

And D.C. is no different. Students overall were four months behind where children their age are during a typical academic year in math and one month behind in reading, according to the EmpowerK12 study.

At-risk students — defined as students whose families are homeless or recipients of certain public assistance — lost five months of math and four months of reading.

Forty-seven percent of at-risk D.C. students were more than two grades behind in math in fall 2019. In 2020, that number increased to 55 percent.

Students typically experience some learning slides in summer, and these months of learning loss indicate where students were expected to be in fall 2020, even with expected summer losses.

“The reason why we looked at this data was to get a sense of where we are at,” said Joshua Boots, executive director of EmpowerK12. “When we are ready to come back, we know what we need to focus on, who we need to bring back first, what we need to invest in.” 

This entire second grade class fell behind in reading. Now what?

The report studied data for more than 30,000 students, relying on a dozen charter networks and the traditional public schools to submit fall test results for elementary and middle school students. Schools that served high populations of at-risk students had lower test participation rates than typical years, suggesting the gaps could be wider than the study’s conclusion.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee released early literacy data this fall showing that the gap between White students and students of color is widening during the pandemic.

The new EmpowerK12 data backs that up and also shows that, when it comes to early literacy, a sizable portion of students is performing better than expected, while others are underperforming.

In D.C., achievement gap widens, early literacy progress declines during pandemic, data shows

In Ward 3 — the wealthiest ward in the city — 27 percent of students were considered “above proficient” in reading in fall 2019, the data shows. That number jumped to 48 percent this fall. The percentage of students reading “far below proficient” remained the same, at 18 percent.

Ward 8 — the ward with the highest concentration of poverty — saw   an   increase   from   5.5   to 11.5 percent in students reading “above proficient.” But the ward experienced a major increase in the number of students considered “far below proficient,” from 44.5 percent in 2019 to 64 percent in 2020.

The data came from three different tests commonly known in education as MAP, I-Ready and TRC. MAP, a test students frequently take in school, measures students’ growth between tests and projects what their improvement targets should be during the academic year. Similarly, I-Ready pinpoints students’ abilities and is intended to help teachers identify the skills students need to tackle. TRC measures reading comprehension.

Most students took these assessments virtually, and Boots said the study did not include tests in which students took a much longer or shorter time to complete the test compared with the average amount spent on the assessments in 2019.

Students who took much longer on the tests tended to perform significantly better, which Boots said could suggest that students received help from an adult or the Internet. Students who rapidly completed the test may have sped through it without accurately showing what their skills are.

After eliminating many results, the study used data from 14,500 students to determine the learning loss.

The students included in the study closely mirrored the demographics of the city’s public school population. Citywide, 47 percent of students are considered at-risk. Sixty-four percent of students are Black, 20 percent are Latino, 12 percent are White, 2 percent are Asian and 3 percent identify with two or more races.

Read the full study here.

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