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Total COVID-19 impact on learning loss in Alabama may not be known for years

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Many Alabama students will see some amount of learning loss as a result of complications created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but just how much backsliding has occurred may not be known for years, education leaders say.

The state was set to launch a new statewide assessment test this spring but the pandemic halted all standardized testing in March. The plan now is to give the assessment in the spring of 2021, but there won’t be previous testing to compare it to.

“We just don’t really have long-term data to look at,” State Superintendent Eric Mackey told Alabama Daily News.

State schools use Scantron assessment tests to provide immediate diagnoses of student needs and inform placement and instructional strategy decisions, but the state department does not have any kind of aggregated assessment data at this point.

A recently released report from the Northwest Evaluation Association suggests the effects of the pandemic have created a decrease in learning, particularly in math, but to not as severe of an extent as was predicted to be. The report gives the first glimpse as to how the pandemic has impacted young students learning nationwide.

The results showed that students scored an average of 5 to 10 percentile points lower in math, with students in grades three, four and five experiencing the largest drops.

Mackey said he expects Alabama’s loss to be slightly worse than what the NWEA report shows, especially among students who don’t have a supportive home structure and have received little in-person instruction.

“Some students will continue to grow and do well and they’ll have minimal if any learning loss, but some students will see significant losses and it depends on how much parental support they had, because that is very important during this pandemic, that parents are able and capable of helping their students with work,” Mackey said.

Mackey said he plans to have conversations with school superintendents to understand what kinds of loss they are facing at the end of this school year to figure out how to close learning gaps.

Utilizing summer school and before and after-school tutoring is going to be vital to making up for learning loss, so much so that Mackey plans to ask for double the amount of funding the Legislature gave toward those efforts this year.

Mackey estimates that they will spend around $52 million from the summer of 2021 to the fall of 2022 just on summer school and after school tutoring programs to bring K-3 students back up to speed.

Mark Dixon, president of A+ Education Partnership, agreed that greater investment in summer and after-school programming will be vital in the coming years to get students caught up to where they need to be learning wise.

“We’re not going to be able to solve this problem in the normal school day,” Dixon said, adding that without more specific state assessment data it will be hard to stop backsliding from continuing to happen.

“This is why assessment is important,” Dixon said. “This is the first of many data points that we need to understand where students are and can diagnose the situation and provide targeted support.”

Sally Smith, the Executive Director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, also thinks that Alabama should be even more concerned since the state has historically ranked low in nationwide education assessments.

“Alabama tends to be low on these nationalized rankings when you break it down by state, we tend to be in the bottom tier, so that’s a real sound of alarm in terms of the area of Math, which hasn’t been a strength in Alabama statewide,” Smith told ADN.

Last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress scores showed Alabama at or near the bottom for both 4th and 8th grade math and reading scores for the nation.

Mackey does not believe the loss will be so great that students will have to completely do over this school year or that huge learning concepts will be lost.

“What we’re going to have to do is dig down deeper than that to see what the particular needs are and where those gaps are and try to find a way to close the gaps,” Mackey said.

Mackey said his biggest concern right now is keeping students in schools and learning with high-quality teachers.

Gov. Kay Ivey released a statement last week stressing the importance for schools to return to in-person teaching as soon as possible to prevent learning loss.

“I’m extremely grateful for the flexibility everyone has shown as they have adapted to virtual instruction,” Ivey said.  “However, virtual and remote instruction are stop-gap measures to prevent our students from regressing academically during the pandemic. These practices cannot — and should not — become a permanent part of instructional delivery system in 2021. As we are learning more about COVID-19, we are seeing more and more clear evidence pointing out that our students are safe in the classroom with strong health protocols in place.”

Multiple school systems, including some of the state’s largest systems, have switched back to only virtual learning as the state’s COVID-19 case numbers continue to grow.

Mackey is concerned that if a statewide vaccination effort isn’t underway by the summer of 2021, students could be facing an even worse learning loss.

“That would be a true tragedy if we are not started down the path of recovery by the summer of ’21,” Mackey said.

He said he’s in daily conversations with State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris about vaccinating students through their schools but that roll out is still far away. Vaccination priority will be given to health care workers, first responders and elderly Alabamians.

This story was corrected to show that the new statewide assessment would be given in the spring of 2021 and not the fall of 2021. 

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