The Road to Recovery for Student Learning

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Henley Middle School student engages with online instruction. Photo: K. Fusco.

The Albemarle county school division has announced a return to five-day, all in-person instruction for the fall, which prompts a question: how will schools deal with students’ learning loss due to various forms of disengagement this past year? Division officials prefer not to call it learning loss at all—they call it “learning recovery” or “learning opportunity,” focusing on the future rather than the past. But educators on the ground admit that, by whatever name, it will be a knotty and lingering problem that will require a careful look at where students are now, and how they got here.

Predicting the amount of academic “recovery” that students will have to make up after their largely virtual school year is hamstrung by two intertwined factors: First, state and local education officials redefined the meaning of “absent” this year to a narrow and almost useless metric. And second, many middle and high schoolers adopted new habits that rendered them effectively invisible online. As a result, secondary school teachers have a tough time knowing with certainty how much class content their students absorbed, or even laid eyes on.

“For purposes of reporting our [virtual] attendance to the state, we count who is present and checks in during our Advisory period, the first block of the day,” said Beth Costa, principal of Henley Middle School. “Kids do know that Advisory attendance is being monitored very carefully and so we actually have a very high average percentage of [official] attendance, usually around 96 or 97 percent, sometimes a bit lower in the winter.” In the past, Henley hasn’t taken attendance for individual classes because once a middle schooler arrives for the day, they typically don’t leave.

After that first block, however, the attendance situation for virtual classes is fluid. To be considered “present,” students need only log in to the school’s learning platform; the division does not require them to actively participate in synchronous classes. Division pandemic rules allow students to turn their cameras and microphones on or off during class, so teachers may see only a name or avatar on their class screens. On (asynchronous) days when students are not Zooming with teachers, any fleeting contact counts as attendance, from turning in an item of online work to streaming a video. 

Dr. Matt Haas, Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent. Photo: ACPS.

Even as the school division reported last fall that about 66% of secondary students were present for their online classes, Superintendent Matt Haas noted in a school board meeting that “[w]e really have no way of knowing because of the way the data is collected. Attendance rates are dramatically inflated so schools can keep their state funding. I think the teachers are doing a great job for the students who tune in—it’s all the students who aren’t tuning in [who] are falling off our radar.”

Losing touch

Virginia labels students who have missed 18 or more days in a school year as “chronically absent,” and associates that level with “low academic achievement” and greater risk of high school dropout. (Albemarle county schools focus on 15 rather than 18 absences per year as their measure of problematic absenteeism.) Henley has been collecting data on who is and is not attending classes since the beginning of the year, and teachers know that there is a certain degree of gaming the system. 

“Sixth grade is better than seventh [in terms of attendance], which is better than eighth,” she said. “For eighth grade, we might have 11 or 12 kids missing from Advisory for 15 or more days this year, but then for academic classes it’s close to 40 missing.” While the 11 or 12 will be counted as absent and reported to the division, the 40 will not. 

Dr. Beth Costa, Henley Middle School principal. Photo: Lisa Martin.

At Western Albemarle High School, which does take attendance by class, a student must be absent from all four classes in one day to be marked officially absent. One check-in for any online class counts as “attended” for the day. Associate Principal Reed Gillespie said that about 30 students will hit the official 15-absence threshold this year, and about half of those are juniors. 

“Our juniors are the least likely to be present, as junior year is a pretty tough one for students,” he said. “Our seniors know what they need to do to graduate, whereas juniors are in that in-between aspect of things.” Though the reasons for disengagement vary, Gillespie said that “most of it is students with a high degree of mental health issues and anxiety [about school generally].” While Western does not report data on how many students are skipping individual classes, the school does alert parents via email whenever a class is missed.

Beyond the official absenteeism numbers, teachers and administrators are also acutely aware of the part of the iceberg below the waterline—the unquantified mass of students whose day-to-day class absences go unreported. “I feel like [the absentee numbers] are both promising and misleading at the same time because I have to triangulate with students’ grades and their work completion, which is a totally different story,” said Costa. “A kid could go to one period per day, and that’s a touch point and a connection to the school, but then he’s not going to three other classes. Those kinds of things are happening too, and it’s a lot to wrap your head around.”

Cass Girvin, who teaches tenth grade English at WAHS, said it’s difficult to tell how many of his virtual students are really there. “In most of my classes we usually have only two or three students willing to turn their screens on, and that’s not even every day,” said Girvin. “Some talk, not many. I’d say we are making progress, but we’re moving much more slowly than we would in a normal year. Speaking to other teachers at the other high schools, I actually think we have better attendance [at Western] than they do.”

Both Henley and Western have teams of staff members who attempt to find, keep track of, and maintain contact with students who have had little to no academic engagement this year. “We’re making contact with their families with the help of our liaison at the division office for truancy,” said Costa, “and some students we’ve assigned to a learning coach that checks with them daily, meets with them in the classroom, and helps them do their work weekly.” 

Stage 3 of the reopening in November allowed schools to invite in students who were struggling with online learning, but the student has to be a willing partner for that to work. “We invited in 150 kids in the time between November and April, and I would say we’ve gotten in 75 of them and they are now here four days a week, but the other 75 are not willing to come in for the four days,” said Costa. 

Lost and Found

Standardized testing performed earlier in the school year provides evidence that points to areas of slowing student progress. In a literacy screening test given to county kindergarteners through second graders in the winter, the percentage of students below a benchmark score had increased by more than 10%. A national study by McKinsey & Co. reported that younger students began the school year with an average of 33% less math proficiency and 15% less reading proficiency than in typical years. As the end of the school year closes in, school administrators and teachers admit they may have to wait until the fall to form a complete picture of the deficit.

“Math and world languages will be the most obvious right off the bat [in cases of students who have fallen behind the normal progression],” said Gillespie. “Our teachers did a good job this year of using pre-assessments to see where the students were, and that will obviously become much more important next year. A student in, say, English 10 may not have been engaged really since March of 2020, or they may have excelled during this time and are going to be much better off than average.”

Slide from Albemarle School Board meeting on April 22. Photo: ACPS.

“It really will come down to the individual student,” said Costa. “You won’t know until you get a chance to maybe invite them in for summer school or maybe not until next year. The teachers are going to have to be ready to do much more in the way of formative checks with kids—to see what they’ve retained—than ever before,” she said. “I’m curious about pacing. Did we get as far as we would in a normal year, and if not, what is next year’s teacher going to have to go back and revisit?”

A recent grading policy change implemented for the spring semester in secondary schools may also exacerbate the disparities in next year’s student preparedness. The new “no zeroes” policy mandates that no student shall receive a grade below 50% for any assignment (whether late, incomplete, or not turned in at all). 

“I support the idea of standards-based grading,” said Girvin, but [under the system as implemented] you could have a student who turns in nothing all semester, winds up with a 50 average, and then in the last two weeks turns in five assignments and manages to pass the class.” Division policy does not support retention (having a student repeat a grade), nor are teachers asked to recommend appropriate next classes for their students, so the student in Girvin’s example would be passed on to the next class level in the fall, further widening the learning gap teachers will face.

In stark contrast with the evidence and observations from teachers and principals, the school division’s outlook on potential learning loss is remarkably rosy. “We’re not anticipating any significant differences in student progress this fall compared to what we normally see in a new year,” said Deputy Superintendent for Student Learning Debora Collins. “In fact, in our academic review meetings, principals are reporting that, especially over the past several weeks, students are making steady progress.”

Collins said that middle school MAP (Measures of Academic Progress, administered twice a year) assessments last fall “were in line with prior years,” and that the division’s planned four-week summer programs (which will include half-day academic work plus half-day physical activity, for which most students are guaranteed only one week of participation) “certainly will impact assessments of academic progress when the new school year begins.”

While Collins said that teachers will use Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) and other assessments from this year to inform teachers on student achievement levels heading into next year, the current hybrid learning format may make it difficult to acquire consistent data. “Our teachers will administer the [end-of-year] MAP, but if a student is all-virtual then it’ll be difficult to get that data because we’re asking kids to take the test at home,” said Costa. “We’ll have data on probably 75% of our kids, realistically.”

SOL’s, which were waived by the Virginia Department of Education last spring, may hold limited promise as an assessment tool. “The SOL’s are so hit and miss that I don’t rely on that data this year at all,” said Costa. Given current constraints on testing, she said, “at this point we could have a 50% participation rate.” As for the idea of summer programs significantly impacting academic progress, Costa takes the long view. “I’ve heard Dr. Haas say there’s nothing magical about a summer, and he’s right. It’s really going to be one to two years to get back to where we feel like we can tell where kids are, because of the individual nature of it.”

Girvin said that although initial academic levels may be lower in the fall, the variance within classes may not be as wide as some fear. “Yes, I think students’ level of preparedness will be worse this coming year, and their skill sets are going to be less developed,” he said, “but it’s going to be widespread and it may hit the various groups pretty homogeneously within each group, so within our classes we may not have a huge discrepancy.”

“It’s been interesting,” said Gillespie. “We know there are students who are working asynchronously—they may not have been going to class in the traditional sense—but they are still engaged with the work at some level. It’s going to take a while, but we’ll assess the students and meet them where they are. The differences will be exaggerated next year, but that’s why our teachers focus on differentiated instruction.” 

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