Over the past two years, concerns have multiplied among parents about whether their school-aged children were getting as good an education as prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In particular, parents have wondered, and challenged, whether remote instruction was as effective as in-person teaching in the classroom, especially during the months in 2021 when that was all that was offered.
This week, even Alamance-Burlington school officials admitted what ABSS parents have considered the obvious: ABSS students’ performance has declined. A lot.
For the first time in more than two years, school board members heard this week about just how far behind students have fallen behind academically due to the statewide school closure that began in March 2020 and the subsequent shift to online instruction that stretched into March 2021.
At the outset of a presentation to the school board Monday night about student academic performance during the 2020-21 school year ABSS chief academic officer Amy Richardson acknowledged the results weren’t good.
The State Board of Education had suspended the end-of-grade tests and end-of-course exams for all public school students for the 2019-20 school year, following the emergence of Covid-19 in the spring of 2020.
The state’s annual year-end standardized tests were administered during the 2020-21 school year, but those results are intended to gauge how much more help students need this year to get caught up to expected levels of academic progress, the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) announced in September 2021 when it released the results from annual year-end tests for the 2020-21 school year.
The General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper waived state testing requirements, including the calculation of academic “growth” (or progress from one school year to the next), as well as the A-F school performance grades for the past two school years.
The academic performance data had been available since September 1, 2021 but was presented to school board members for the first time Monday night.
Richardson, for her part, acknowledged the poor results Monday night, while several school board members voiced frustration over the minimal amount of information presented this week about academic results that DPI had released more than six months ago.
School board vice chairman Patsy Simpson said it’s urgent to provide students with the extra help – and the staff – they need to recover from the pandemic-induced lost instructional time.
‘Dips across the board’
There were “dips across the board as a result of school closures and interruptions in instruction,” Richardson said.
However, the chief academic officer said that the declines in grade-level proficiency for ABSS mirrored those of six similarly-sized and demographically-similar school systems that former superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson had selected as the basis for comparing academic performance and other data, such as county funding for public schools (see accompanying chart).
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The data that Richardson presented Monday night showed the following overall growth rates for ABSS elementary and middle school students during the 2020-21 school year:
• 0.1 percent in third through eighth-grade reading;
• -7.9 percent in fifth through eighth-grade math;
• -0.7 percent in fifth-grade science;
• -5.2 percent in eighth-grade science.
“I might not finish first, but if my time was better [than the year before] that’s what we want to see,” Richardson said, using an analogy of running a marathon to illustrate why “growth” is an important component of understanding students’ academic progress. “Anything between a -2 and a +2 tells us that’s the growth we want to see; anything less than -2 [percent] is a strong indication there was an interruption in learning.”
Simpson asked Richardson to provide the board with the data, “broken down by school like we use to [have] and for a breakdown of how many schools exceeded growth to be provided with the academic growth rates for each of the 35 ABSS schools.
Richardson agreed to provide that data, as well.
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No K-12 schools designated as low-performing during last two school years
No ABSS schools had been designated as low-performing, as state and federal education officials suspended those ratings for the past two school years, Richardson said this week.
In another departure from the pre-pandemic practice, the academic performance results presented Monday night also did not include a breakdown of how many students were grade-level proficient in each subject tested.
“Clearly we see how far these children are behind in just that year and a half,” Simpson said after Richardson had finished presenting the overall academic results for ABSS. “The lesson we should learn, to me, is we need to put all of our focus on teaching and learning. I know our teachers are trained and highly-qualified, and they can do the job, but we’ve got to leave them alone and stop worrying about implementing all these new gadgets and whatever we have. Just sit down with our babies and teach them. That should be the lesson, because they are one to one; they’re not [receiving instruction online] anymore.
“These babies are behind and we know it takes a lot to get them caught up and just promoting and promoting them is not going to solve the problem. It’s been the same excuse, year after year – whether it’s Covid, or whatever it’s been, in my 14, 15 years [on the board].”
. . .
“until somebody starts listening and allowing our teachers to teach – stop doing all this other stuff that requires their time – and starts putting additional people in front of our babies and recognizing how far they are behind, we are not going to [solve the problem]. . . We are going to have a lost generation of children.”– School board vice chairman patsy simpson
“You can compare us with these other districts – well, they had the same situation,” Simpson continued. “What did they do differently? We need to start working with our babies and we need to start with the basics. You’ve got to put some staff in, more than just the teacher in the classroom. These babies are behind and we know it takes a lot to get them caught up and just promoting and promoting them is not going to solve the problem. It’s been the same excuse, year after year – whether it’s Covid, or whatever it’s been, in my 14, 15 years [on the board].”
School board member Allison Gant suggested, “To that end, I would say our budget allows us the opportunity to reevaluate what we’re putting in it. If we want to spend it more on individuals in our classroom, that’s where we need to start.”
Simpson responded, “I can cut a whole lot that I’m not familiar with – that I still don’t see how it’s helping our children – and put somebody in front of our babies. Go back to the old days; we had our teacher and learned. Something’s not working here. We can pick the best superintendent in the world and do our jobs, but until somebody starts listening and allowing our teachers to teach – stop doing all this other stuff that requires their time – and starts putting additional people in front of our babies and recognizing how far they are behind we are not going to [solve the problem]…We are going to have a lost generation of children.”
Board member Donna Westbrooks said, “I’m extremely concerned as I’m sure everyone is, and I know that the virtual learning of course played a major part in that. But I’m very hopeful regarding the outcomes from this year because I know how hard our teachers and staff are working. I trust that we will definitely see those numbers move up.”
School board member Ryan Bowden added, “We hear all the time, ‘my plate’s full and [I] don’t feel like I have the support,’” apparently referring to concerns that he and his school board colleagues hear from teachers.
“We’ve got to keep in mind these teachers are doing it for the outcome; they’re not doing it for the income,” Bowden said Monday night. “The more we put on their plate, the less opportunity we have for those outcomes. I don’t know if we can have staff take a look at everything that’s on their plate and see what maybe we can get off their plate. Maybe we can have some conversation with our state leaders; I’ll be glad to have some tough conversations there – we’ve got to do something.”
Read the newspaper’s editorial page view of the discussion: https://alamancenews.com/evidence-now-in-remote-instruction-didnt-produce-much-learning-do-school-officials-even-care/