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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Montana Schools Prep For Learning Losses As Classroom Instruction Returns

Empty school classroom

It’s been about six months since most Montana students sat inside a classroom and as school doors reopen, teachers are eager to see if students fell behind while learning remotely. Montana Public Radio’s Aaron Bolton reports on districts’ plan to tackle the so-called “COVID slide.”

Even in normal times, kids return to class in the fall having lost some of what they learned the previous year. Educators call this phenomenon the “summer slide.”

But the 2020 school year is unlike any other as kids are coming back into the classrooms after transitioning to remote and online learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Beth Tarasawa with Northwest Evaluation Association education, a research and learning assessment not-for-profit based in Oregon, says that slide is expected to be much larger this fall.

"Even though it may be difficult to speculate on what missing months of school may mean for achievement, research on seasonal learning and summer loss in particular can offer some insight to that potential impact of the extended pause."

Tarasawa and her colleagues are calling the potential education gap the "COVID slide." They used data from NWEA’s student assessment test, which one in five kids across the country take each year, to estimate student learning loss as a result of the move to remote instruction this spring, on top of the summer break.

In reading, Tarasawa says, on average, kids are expected to return to school about 30 percent below the typical summer slide.

"And in math, those results were even bleaker. We saw kids returning with about 50 percent of the typical learning gains, and in some cases, almost a full year behind."

Tarasawa says that these learning losses will vary across different age groups and demographics.

She says it's important to meet each student where they’re at, whether they excelled with online learning or fell behind; guidance echoed by the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

In order to do that, most districts in Montana will use computer adaptive assessment tools like MAP Skills, which is what NWEA’s research is based on and what some Montana schools use. Here’s an ad for that program.

Narrator: "John was struggling with identifying written fractions. Using MAP skills, his teacher identifies specific building blocks that John is missing and gives him the instruction he needs."

Montana school districts have long used MAP and other testing tools to monitor student progress, typically in the fall, winter and spring. Many districts MTPR spoke with weren’t able to do this kind of benchmarking while students were learning remotely this spring, meaning most districts don’t have an idea of the learning loss students are facing.

Browning Public Schools Curriculum Director Billie Jo Juneau said this spring she expected that most students would need extra support in the fall.

"And so we’re looking at modifying our curriculum in terms of teaching some of those key skills and concepts that they would've had this second half of the year, and providing that instruction in the fall."

But not every district is expecting a “COVID slide.” Big Fork Public Schools Superintendent Matt Jenson says the district brought elementary students back on campus this spring to assess them in reading.

"So we were to, as a district, identify the students that the virtual experience was not working well for, and we were able to bring those students back on-site and give them instruction."

Those assessments showed that many students were reading at or about 15 percent below the proficiency level for their grade. The district pulled students reading below grade level into summer school. District data specialist and second grade teacher Aubrie Kallenberger says that helped make up lost ground.

"And we saw huge gains just in having those kids with us. So I don’t think it’s going to take very long to get those kids to benchmark where they need, and then we’ll be right back to where are on a regular school year."

However, Big Fork doesn’t have data on its middle or high school students and no post-school shut down data on student achievement in subjects like math, where students typically retain less of what they learned through the summer.

Most schools in the state didn’t do this kind of end of spring gauge on student achievement during the COVID-19 closures and push to online learning.

Many Montana schools plan to assess students in all subjects in order to identify kids who are struggling early this fall and several districts have built in remediation time into schedules with the expectation that more students will need that extra help.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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