Educators aim to accelerate learning, fill in gaps to make up for disrupted school year

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published September 23, 2021

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — It should come as no surprise that a year and a half of disrupted learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic would affect student test scores, and state education leaders said that was the case with the results of the M-STEP tests given in the spring of 2021.

“In spite of the extraordinary efforts of educators, support staff, school leaders, parents, the broader community and students themselves, the disruption of the pandemic has inevitably resulted in unfinished learning for many of our children,” said state Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice in a press release. “Results from the state summative assessments and the local benchmark assessments show that some students were able to make relatively normal gains, while many others will be working with their teachers to accelerate their learning to catch up to where they otherwise would have been in the absence of the pandemic. In Michigan and across the country, we have our work cut out for us.”

Not every student took the assessments, as it was optional. Statewide, depending on grade and content, 64%-72% of students took the tests.

“The 2020-21 school year was such an uneven year with high health risks for students and staff, inconsistent technology, and variations in teaching and learning across the state,” Rice said. “Any analysis of M-STEP results must factor in low participation rates in state testing.”

Rachelle Wynkoop, assistant superintendent of instructional services in Lake Shore Public Schools, agreed that last year was a challenging year for students taking the M-STEP exam, so Lake Shore isn’t putting too much emphasis on the scores.

“We are concerned about the well-being of our students, really as little people, so state assessments were not the primary focus,” she said. “Identifying skills that we were lacking and needing support on, that was our focus.”

Nevertheless, she said the state Legislature required schools to administer M-STEP exams as well as benchmark assessments, like those given by the NWEA.

“All the districts were required to post those on our transparency reports on our websites ... mid-year benchmarks and also, on the last day of school, what was achieved,” she said.

While the NWEA tests were allowed to be administered virtually, the M-STEP and SAT were not, so there was the added challenge of asking children who may have been uncomfortable coming to school to come into the building for a standardized test.

“We had a high-percentage turnout but we also, anecdotally, had children who had not been in a building for a year, who may have been immune compromised or had families who were immune compromised, who socially were uncomfortable, and then they were asked to come in and do assessment,” she said.

Wynkoop said the results don’t show the real story. When looking at the percentage of students proficient or exceeding expectations, it doesn’t show the large numbers of students who are very close to the proficiency standards but “just haven’t met it yet.”

Looking at the district’s scores, Wynkoop said writing scores were lower, but many students — especially in elementary schools — did less writing during the COVID pandemic because it wasn’t as easy of a skill to focus on when teaching virtually. Math assessments were also lower because reading was an easier skill for families to keep up with at home, she said. Wynkoop said they will be looking to engage students in activities that will boost those skills this year.

This doesn’t mean students will be learning at the prior grade level this year, however. The state is asking school districts to accelerate instead of remediate.

“Students can’t be put back to where they are testing that they should be,” she said. “All students need to be exposed to grade-level content.”

To that end, teachers will teach grade-level content while filling in gaps in student knowledge that they may have missed during the prior school year.

“Of course, we continue our multi-tier systems of support. Identify the lowest 40% and assure they’re getting the support they need,” she said. “Some of these students, just by virtue of being back in and having consistent instruction, will close any gaps.”

School officials said science scores were likely lower for a combination of reasons. One, the science curriculum changed before the pandemic and students were not tested on it prior to the shutdown, and also, teachers were focused on math and English language arts while teaching remotely or in a hybrid mode.

“The reality is, you can’t do everything,” Lakeview Superintendent Karl Paulson said. “Mostly the focus was, if we only have half the time, how are we going to spend that?”

Lakeview Public School students took NWEA tests in the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021. Paulson said the students didn’t show the same amount of growth he would have expected in a typical year. Depending on the grade level and content, he estimated learning loss to be between 5% and 18% for most students.

“In all cases, except eighth grade ELA (PSAT), our M-STEP scores were lower than the previous testing year (2018-19),” Paulson said in an email interview. “However, in all cases, (our) overall averages for M-STEP bounced slightly above or slightly below the state averages for the various grades and contents tested. Usually, we tend to be above all the state and county averages for M-STEP.”

He said the district looks closely at fifth and eighth grade scores, where it tends to have the most consistency in the student population, and those grades both “substantially” beat the state average in ELA and math.


‘We need to fill the gaps’
Like Lake Shore, Paulson said Lakeview teachers will accelerate learning at grade level while providing mini lessons where there are content gaps that need to be filled so students will be focused forward, with support provided along the way.

“The reality is, the kids are in fourth grade,” he said. “We need to fill the gaps of third-grade stuff while they’re learning fourth grade.”

Several Lakeview teachers piloted those techniques in the 2020-21 school year, he said, and saw success with limited content gaps and overall success in their M-STEP scores.

“We can’t give up another year. They have to keep moving forward, but we have to fill those gaps with those mini-lessons,” he said.

John Thero, director of instruction and assessment in South Lake Schools, said they are looking at how students can be supported going forward. The district expanded its summer camp offerings for students in elementary and middle school from five weeks to eight weeks, during which teachers came in and worked with nearly 300 students on reading and math. South Lake also ran an in-house, eight-week credit recovery program at the high school.

“We knew that kids needed additional support in our learning. That’s really our focus — not so much on what the scores said, more along the lines of, this is where our students are,” he said. “What do we need to do to support them and make sure that they’re learning?”

The district is bringing back reading and math “techs” in elementary schools and reinstituting the “Walk to Read” program to give students instruction at their level. Differentiated learning supports were disrupted during the pandemic because students had to be kept in the same classroom all day.

“Our normal support services were really disrupted last year,” he said. “We’re trying, right now, to get people in place and bring that back up to speed.”

The district saw an 8%-13% drop in proficiency scores, he said. Superintendent Ted Von Hiltmayer said, in order to keep students and staff safe, the district also had shortened the school day by about an hour last year.

“Even though we had our elementary students face to face, it still wasn’t a traditional full day of school,” he said. “A focus for this year, obviously, was to get our students back ... to a traditional school day.”

He said the scores seem to highlight the importance of face-to-face learning.

“If there’s a takeaway, it’s that having students in school for a full day is really important,” he said.

There will be a difference between where students are now and where they would have been without the pandemic, Paulson said.

“I believe any time a student is missing from school for 30-60 days, it will have a lasting impact on their learning, unless we can partner with parents to motivate the student to work hard at filling in the gaps,” he said.

Wynkoop said students may have developed different skills during the pandemic, however.

“Students were given a level of responsibility, an opportunity to really develop time management and self-motivation and skills that we talk about that are really necessary in life,” she said. “The lasting impact will be interesting. Are we going to have a set of students that, maybe we don’t send all of them into engineering and doctors, but do they have the skills that we so often hear are lacking?

“I am 100% confident that we can get them caught up. Caught up to pre-pandemic is not a fair measurement. Assuming in a year that we are going to have students responding and acting in a way they would have, had we had no pandemic, I think, is unrealistic.”

Historically, children have experienced traumatic events and recovered, Thero said, so he thinks students have an “excellent chance” to recover now, as well.

“We will provide the support and services to get them where they need to be by the time they graduate from high school,” he said. “We certainly don’t believe it’s a lost cause.

“Getting everyone used to being in school again — that’s probably our biggest hurdle. There’s going to be a transition where everyone’s kind of adjusting.”

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