Accelerating Learning to Promote Equity: Challenges and Strategies in the Midst of a Pandemic

Defining and Assessing the Problem

**Kuhfeld, M., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., & Lewis, K. (2020, November). Learning during COVID-19: Initial findings on students’ reading and math achievement and growth. NWEA. Available at https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/11/Collaborative-brief-Learning-during-COVID-19.NOV2020.pdf

Using fall 2020 data from nearly 4.4 million students in grades 3-8, NWEA modeled projections of the potential academic impact of COVID-19 disruptions alongside well-documented summer learning loss estimates. In fall 2020, students performed similarly to same-grade students in fall 2019 in reading, but about 5-10 percentile points lower in math compared to same-grade children last year. Estimated patterns varied by subject and grade; some projections were in-line with fall 2020 results (e.g., math scores for grades 4-6), while others were above projections (e.g., reading in all grades, math in grades 7 and 8). Nevertheless, growth in math was lower than in a typical year when focusing on within-student growth from winter 2020 to fall 2020. Differences by racial/ethnic groups appeared in the fall 2020 data, but authors noted that it is too early to draw definitive conclusions from these initial results. The researchers caution that their analysis is limited because it does not include the students who did not take Measures of Academic Progress Growth assessments (their primary data source). As a result, it is likely that the impacts of COVID-19 on academic achievement reported are underestimated.  The full dataset is interactive, and we encourage you to visit https://www.nwea.org/research-data-galleries/covid-impact-visualization/ to examine it further. 

**New Classrooms. (2019). The iceberg problem: How assessment and accountability policies cause learning gaps in math to persist below the surface . . . and what to do about it (Executive Summary). Available at https://wvw.newclassrooms.org/iceberg-problem-executive-summary

This paper argues that, like an iceberg, learning gaps in math are frequently not visible and grow cumulatively from year to year. Unfinished learning from prior years makes it harder for students to master more advanced concepts because math concepts build upon themselves. One contributing factor to the iceberg problem is a hyper-focus on grade-level standards, regardless of individual student needs; it hinders students from finishing learning from prior units or entire school years. The researchers argue that the fastest way to accelerate student learning in this situation is to provide opportunities where students are challenged at the appropriate level for their existing skills and knowledge. The authors reiterate that they are not arguing against policies and principles that prioritize standards, accountability, rigor, transparency, and equity. Rather, there should be more innovative and different paths to achieving college and career readiness, particularly for students who need to catch up. While this article was written prior to COVID-19 and is specific to mathematics, many of the same lessons and calls for innovation apply to our current context.

Johnson, S. (2021, February 9). California teachers grapple with grading nearly a year after initial school closures. EdSource. Available at https://edsource.org/2021/california-teachers-grapple-with-grading-nearly-a-year-after-initial-school-closures

When California schools closed in March 2020, many districts altered grading policies in the spirit of “doing no harm.” Even though state law does not require districts to return to letter grades, most schools did for the 2020-21 school year. The districts profiled in this reported that the decision to return to letter grades was meant to increase student motivation and to align with the UC and CSU systems, which typically require A-F grades on student transcripts. Unfortunately, many districts across the state have seen an uptick in D and F grades, and the percentage of Ds and Fs among African American and Latino students has grown since last school year (as compared to their white and Asian peers). Some teachers and districts are trying to find ways to be more flexible because of the more limited and varying learning experiences resulting from current pandemic conditions. Flexibilities include accepting late work, giving narrative style feedback on report cards, adjusting the grading scale, and extending a “no fail” policy, but some parents and advocates say these responses are not enough.

AB-104 Pupil instruction: learning recovery opportunities: COVID-19. (2021, January 27). (Bill analysis, pp. 17–28).

We have excerpted a section of the bill analysis for Assembly Bill (AB) 104 (for full analysis, see https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billAnalysisClient.xhtml?bill_id=202120220AB104). AB 104, introduced by Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez of District 80 (Chula Vista region), establishes the COVID-19 Student Learning Recovery Act Program to provide funding to LEAs and charter schools to address learning recovery for students impacted by COVID-19. Specifically, the bill lays out four areas for learning recovery opportunities: (1) provide supplemental instruction and support to students beginning in the summer of 2021 and into the following school year, (2) require LEAs to adopt policies allowing parents request students be retained in the 2021-22 academic school year, (3) create a process for parents to request students receive a pass/no pass instead of a letter grade for the 2021-22 academic year and also requires that specified institutions of higher education accept “pass” for credit for admissions purposes, and (4) require that students who were in their third or fourth year of high school in the 2020-21 academic year be permitted to remain enrolled for a fifth year of instruction in order to complete local graduation requirements.

The excerpt focuses on the evidence the bill draws from, which includes data from 50,000 students across 18 districts participating in the CORE Data Collaborative. The data indicate these students are performing below same-grade fall 2019 students in ELA and math, and even greater gaps for low-income and English learner students. The document also includes national data that paint a similar picture, noting that all analyses likely underestimate the impact of COVID-19 due to large numbers of untested students in fall 2020. The expert also considers impacts on students’ wellbeing, such as higher numbers of young people experiencing mental health crises and national estimates of students who have stopped attending school and cannot be contacted. These data suggest that underlying social inequities intensify losses for disadvantaged students during the pandemic.

Charania, M., & Fisher, J. F. (2020, July). The missing metrics: Emerging practices for measuring students’ relationships and networks. Christensen Institute. Available at https://www.christenseninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/THE-MISSING-METRICS.pdf

Relationships matter but are often treated as inputs to learning and development rather than as outcomes in their own right. To address this, researchers are making efforts to purposefully build and measure students’ social capital, because research suggests that social capital strongly predicts whether students will move up the income distribution ladder and can be leveraged to expand students’ access to opportunities. This paper offers a framework for measuring students’ social capital across four interrelated dimensions. The first is quantity of relationships, because the more relationships students have at their disposal, the better their chances of finding the support they need. The second is quality of relationships, which is measured by how students experience the relationships they are in and the extent to which those relationships are meeting their relational, developmental, and instrumental needs. The third dimension is the structure of networks, or the variety of people a student knows and how those people are connected. The fourth dimension is the ability for the individual student to mobilize and leverage their relationships as resources after the relationships have already been established. It is important to note that while this report does not explicitly mention COVID-19, we are including this reading because it details another way in which students are being impacted by the pandemic as they continue to be isolated from relationships and opportunities to build their networks.

**This document is considered a priority reading.