As the start of the school year approaches, we keep hearing about the risks of learning loss. In a typical year, we are told, students lose an average of 36 percent of their academic year gains in reading over the summer, and a whopping 50 percent of their gains in mathematics.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most students across the country out of school buildings for the equivalent of two summers so far—a period that is expected to continue at schools in California and many other states. Despite serious concerns about variable access to instruction during the pandemic, schools should resist the instinct to reflexively test and remediate students, and focus as much as possible on supporting them to learn at grade level.
This is particularly important in math, where assessments can provide a myopic picture of what students know and can do. If half of what students learn over nine months vanishes three months later, something is seriously wrong: It might be that the initial instruction was ineffective. Or perhaps the content was not meaningful to students. Though both could be true, one also has to question whether the tests provide an accurate picture of what students learned.
Math tests frequently focus on narrow, procedural skills. If reading tests assessed primarily grammar and punctuation skills, students would perform equally poorly on them, note some math assessment experts.
In real life, many students read over the summer, whether for school or for pleasure (though there are troubling inequities in this area). Students also may use mathematics for any number of reasons: calculating their earnings on a summer job, comparing their swimming speed to others on the team, adjusting a recipe, reading about political polling results in the newspaper, or studying COVID-19 spread across regions, just to name a few.
But, unless they are taking a summer math class, students almost never do math problems, which is what math tests typically assess. Re-teaching the same material— especially if the focus is on narrow, procedural skills—simply positions students to forget it again. Research at the college level has shown that students perform far better when they receive support to succeed in college level courses—called “corequisite” support—rather than remedial education.
In recent years, many colleges and universities have stopped using assessments to assign students to remedial math courses. Instead, they’ve developed corequisite strategies, allowing all students to enroll in college-level courses and embedding additional support into those courses (or in companion courses) to help students learn the material.
Rigorous studies have found that such approaches significantly improve students’ success in college-level math courses (in Tennessee’s community colleges) as well as their graduation rates (at City University of New York community colleges). K-12 educators should emulate this approach for their students and prioritize teaching at grade level, as several recent reports have underscored.
The New Teacher Project stresses that, “The typical approach to remediation—providing work better suited for earlier grades—won’t come close to catching students up and will likely compound the problem.” The solution, according to a new report from Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE, a Just Equations partner), is clear: “Pursue grade-level standards while embedding instruction of precursor standards.”
Standardized assessments have limited validity for placing students, and tend to under-estimate the abilities of students of color. In K-12 schools, this can lead to tracking students into ability groups, where students labeled “lower performing” receive low levels of instructional rigor, notes a recent report by the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS).
While acknowledging the temptation to identify learning gaps from the prior school year and rush to cover them, the CGCS report cautions against that approach:
“The pace … will mean rushing ahead of many students leaving them abandoned and discouraged. It will also feed students a steady diet of curricular junk food: shallow engagement with the content, low standards for understanding, and low cognitive demand—all bad learning habits to acquire.”
Instead, CGCS urges districts to treat assessments like “temperature checks,” using formative assessments embedded into the curriculum to help teachers understand students’ needs and support them in real time:
“A thermometer can identify when someone has a fever, but it takes a doctor, armed with this data, to probe further and identify what is causing the fever and how to restore a patient to health.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact students’ lives, the problem of unfinished learning is affecting a wider pool of students more than ever. As families face issues ranging from unemployment and the digital divide to illness and housing insecurity, students’ education may suffer. Though teachers may be ill-equipped to address all of these issues, it is incumbent on them to use what we know about learning to help students move forward, not back.