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EWA Tip Sheet: How to Cover Students’ Academic Recovery

Get background, tips and story ideas for covering academic recovery, and any resulting achievement gaps, at K-12 and higher education institutions.

Photo credit: James Minichello, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

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More than two years into the pandemic, colleges and schools are trying to help students make up for lost instructional time.

What’s ahead on the path to academic recovery? Experts offered their perspectives on what reporters should look for and be mindful of during a session at the Education Writers Association’s 2022 National Seminar.

The panel agreed that students have a lot of ground to make up because of the disruption, though all students don’t have the same distance to go.

Expect progress over the last few decades in closing achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds to be obliterated when performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is reported in October, said Tom Kane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“High-poverty schools were actually more likely to go remote than low-poverty schools in almost every state that we looked at,” Kane said. “It was the school closures that widened the gaps.”

The discussion also featured Allison Calhoun-Brown of Georgia State University, Peggy Carr of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and Daniel Domench of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. The Wall Street Journal’s Chastity Pratt served as moderator.

Credit: James Minichello, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

Racial Disparities and the Path to Recovery

The way schools resumed classes in the 2020-21 school year “were very different based on race and ethnicity,” Carr said.

White students started primarily in person, and Black and Hispanic students largely started in remote classes. The majority of Asian students were studying remotely, even at the end of that school year, Carr said. Some of this was based on parent choice, but not always.

The recovery will be expensive, Kane said. Be wary of districts taking the federal rules on American Rescue Plan dollars — 20% of pandemic aid — literally. “It’s not going to be enough,” Kane said. “We’re not going to be able to do it more cheaply than a regular school year.”

Specifically, he said, the high-poverty districts that were remote for more than half a year likely would have to spend close to all their federal aid on catching students up.

And while rapid recovery is possible for some students, depending on whether the interventions districts choose are sufficient, there’s a timeline for spending their share of American Rescue Plan money — about $189 billion — by summer 2023.

But Domenech said that could change.

“We’re working right now with [Education Secretary Miguel Cardona] to try and expand that,” Domenech said. An extension could give schools until 2026 to spend the money, which may be especially important for any plans related to construction and other school infrastructure.

Examine Test Results, ‘But Be Wary’

A trove of data will emerge from NCES in the coming weeks and months, Carr said.

“This pandemic has been like an earthquake, and education will never be the same,” she said.

While NCES shed some of the testing it would do in a typical year because of remote teaching, the organization also gathered information it never did previously. “We had to pivot and create data collections we’ve never done before.”

Other test results from states also are coming down the pike, but be wary, Carr said.

“States are all on different units of measurement. Their metrics are all different. Can you believe in an isolated way what the state is telling you?” In a word, she said, “No.” Look at all the results you can get your hands on to get a more accurate picture of what’s really going on, Carr said. “It’s a system of assessments that we need to be focused on.

Challenges Facing Higher Ed Students

Many students who graduated from high school during the pandemic are entering college — and they are changed as students, Calhoun-Brown said.

While graduation rates for two- and four-year degrees are increasing, she noted a concerning trend about first-year college students’ GPAs declining, both for bachelor’s-degree candidates and those pursuing associate degrees. Whether students are taking their classes online or in person, she said, they have challenges with engagement and retention.

“We’ve not really seen a tremendous recovery,” Calhoun-Brown said.

More students are earning Ds and Fs, and overall, fewer students are enrolling in two-year degree programs.

“I’m very concerned, in the two-year space, the kids who are missing,” she said, adding that the popular narrative is they are working at an Amazon warehouse for $25 an hour, but she said she fears that’s not necessarily the case, and many people who might have pursued a two-year credential before the pandemic may be struggling financially.  “What does this mean long term for their lives, the lives of their family?” A related concern, she said, is the long-term pipeline of students from two-year degrees into bachelor’s degree programs.

Tips and Story Ideas

  • Ask districts their precise plans for helping kids: Analyze whether those plans will be enough to make up for what kids have lost. One way to determine if what they are planning will be effective is to consider how much a district is spending on those tools.Use the Edunomics Lab’s Calculator to look up the predicted losses in the school districts you cover and what it could cost to address the situation. For example, students in the Los Angeles Unified School District lost 22 weeks in math and 18 weeks in reading. It could take spending more than $851 million on tutoring in math and more than $466 million on tutoring in reading to catch up students.
  • Track academic recovery options: Look for information from Kane and his partners at the American Institutes for Research and NWEA, expected around the end of August, about the efficacy of options — including high-dose tutoring, after school programs and summer school — and how much ground students are likely to make up based on those distinct interventions.For example, Kane said, a combination of tutoring, adding extra math lessons, summer school, and after school help may yield academic gains of 5.8 weeks. Compare that with how far students have to go to make up for losses from remote learning. It’s likely the plans will fall short of how far behind students may be.
  • Discover colleges on the cutting edge: Find out whether some of your local higher education institutions are members of the University Innovation Alliance, which has been experimenting with ways to help students struggling with academic achievement. Some of their work may make for a great story.One experiment at Georgia State, for example, is allowing students who earned a non-passing grade to repeat the class during the summer without having to pay for the course. Georgia State zeroed in on 600 such students, and when they retook the course, about 400 of them earned a C or better. About 1 in 6 students earned an A.
  • Research if scholarships are in peril: Look at the requirements for your state’s merit-based scholarships, and find out whether students are losing access to that money because of their grades. Whatever is getting in the way of students keeping up with their classes, the consequences can be big.Calhoun-Brown said in Georgia, the state issues merit scholarships for many students, and those come with a requirement that students maintain a 3.0 grade point average. That hasn’t been adjusted because of the pandemic. If students lose their scholarships, they may not be able to afford to stay in school. Once they drop out, they may never come back, she said.
  • Ask about higher education vacancies: Teacher and school bus driver shortages have been widely reported in the K-12 space and vary by location.Calhoun-Brown noted that there are vacancies across her university too, and that may be the case in your region.

Mark Your Calendars: Upcoming Reports and Data

  • The Monthly School Survey linking report will arrive in late fall — likely sometime in November.
  • The Long-Term Trend Assessment (Age 13) results are expected in spring or summer 2023. Eighth-grade civics and history assessment results are expected, too.