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Despite COVID, Illinois Students Haven’t Fallen Behind. But How Long Can That Last?

Students of O’Fallon Township High School staff receive "alternate e-care" on Sept. 9 while their parents focus on teaching classes. A new study suggests student's in Illinois aren't as far behind in schooling as some education advocates feared earlier this year.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Students of O’Fallon Township High School staff receive "alternate e-care" on Sept. 9 while their parents focus on teaching classes. A new study suggests students in Illinois aren't as far behind in schooling as some education advocates feared earlier this year.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

New national data suggests that the worst case scenario for remote learning didn’t materialize, but there still isn’t comprehensive data to detail how deeply the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted academic achievement.

In Illinois, there are still questions as to whether statewide assessments will be given in the spring. That data would provide the most comprehensive look at how remote learning has affected students in the state. Local school administrators nevertheless say that they already know what’s happening with the students in their districts, and that the are better served in the classroom than through a computer screen.

Projections in the spring and summer for student learning loss were dire. The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) and Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) extrapolated data from the “summer slide” to project the “COVID slide.”

Over a normal summer, some students might make small gains in their learning or, alternatively, lose weeks or even months of learning when they’re not in a classroom every day. This phenomenon is described as a summer slide or a summer slowdown.

The worst case scenario in these projections showed that the remote learning that was ubiquitous in the spring and common in the fall, especially in Illinois, might yield similar results as an extended summer vacation, with students showing up in the fall knowing less than they did when schools shut down in March.

The two organizations predicted that students would lose significant ground in reading and math, with NWEA predicting students would lose half a year of learning in reading and nearly a third of a year in math. CREDO predicted students would lose up to a full school year in reading and one and one-third school years in math, depending on the state.

Instead, new national data from NWEA suggests that, rather than true learning loss, students are still learning through the pandemic — they just aren’t learning as much as the year before.

Losses in reading were negligible, and close to a third of students in grades 3-8 moved down a quintile or more in math since the last time the test was administered in the winter of 2020. That’s approximately double the amount in a normal year, but the average student only lost between five and 10 percentile points, compared to the nine to 20 point loss that was predicted.

Study Shortcomings

There’s a major caveat with NWEA’s analysis, though: Roughly one in four students who took the NWEA MAP test last year didn’t take it this year. NWEA serves more schools than any other company, and there’s natural attrition every year — if a student changes districts, for example.

With so many school districts using remote learning, the NWEA MAP test was often conducted remotely as well. A student who can’t engage in normal class time because of internet access problems likely can’t take the test either.

In fall 2020, those “lost” students were disproportionately ethnic and racial minority students, students with lower achievement last year, and students in schools with higher concentrations of socio-economically disadvantaged students.

In other words, they are the same students who were expected to lose the most with remote learning.

Without data for those students, NWEA warns that their conclusions could underestimate the overall effects of remote learning throughout the pandemic.

Testing in Illinois

At the November Illinois State Board of Education Meeting, school district leaders and advocates and board members were split on whether Illinois should assess students in the spring.

Those who opposed testing this year argued that the data will show what they already knew: students who were struggling before schools closed in March are struggling more now.

The statewide assessments are the same across districts. Most districts assess their students, including with the NWEA MAP assessment. Superintendents who spoke during the public comment said that they didn’t want to sacrifice more class time for assessments.

“If it is data the state needs, we will gladly supply the data, rather than lose five days in the classroom,” Collinsville 10 Superintendent Brad Skertich told ISBE, referencing the assessments the district already conducted. “We have the data, and we will share.”

This fall, ISBE is working on a learning loss study with the Regional Educational Laboratory Midwest, using the same data Skertich offered up. The study is voluntary and districts participating sent several years worth of data for the state to analyze.

Of the state’s 852 districts, only about 100 said they would share local data, State Superintendent Carmey Ayala said. That size of a case study is “not representative enough to draw conclusions,” she said.

“We have experienced what it’s been like to not have data,” Ayala told the board. The 2020 Illinois Report Card was missing many data points that are typically factored, including scores for spring assessments.

“We need data so that our students today do not become the COVID-19 generation that is forever impacted,” she said.

The assessments wouldn’t reveal anything that isn’t already known, board member Cristina Pacione-Zayas said.

“There is a utility issue with data,” she said. “There is going to be a data quality issue. There are logistical conundrums to cover.”

The board has not made a decision yet. For now, assessments are slated to start in January. Ayala said it’s unclear if the state will even have an opportunity to apply for a waiver to exempt them from administering the assessments.

Whether the assessments are given or not, the board agreed that the tests should be purely informational, and not used for accountability purposes. Board member David Lett said people were going to blame teachers who had to adjust their entire curriculum in the spring and fall.

“Accountability should be off the table,” Ayala said.

Megan Valley is an education reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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