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Recovery slow-going for Virginia students post-pandemic

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Alexandria, Virginia – Students studied vowel sounds by circling teacher Maria Fletcher on one side of the classroom. Children were reading aloud from a book together in another corner. Students were dispersed throughout, using laptop computers to access online tutoring services for reading assistance.

It was just another typical school day for the third graders at Mount Vernon Community School in Virginia. However, teachers were under pressure to have pupils learning more, faster, and to overcome obstacles that have remained since the COVID-19 outbreak forced school closures four years ago.

Progress has been made in American schools to help pupils get back on track. However, progress has been sluggish and unequal across geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds, with millions of students—many of whom are members of marginalized groups—gaining little to no ground.

According to the Education Recovery Scorecard, an examination of state and national test results conducted by experts at Harvard and Stanford, children nationwide made up one-third of their pandemic losses in arithmetic and one-quarter of the losses in reading during the previous academic year.

However, following drops during the epidemic, reading scores in nine states—including Virginia—kept declining in the 2022–2023 academic year.

An impending financial catastrophe is obstructing the recuperation. The historic $190 billion in federal pandemic assistance has been partially utilized by the states to assist pupils with catching up, but that funding will run out later this year.

“The recovery is not finished, and it won’t be finished without state action,” said Thomas Kane, a Harvard economist behind the scorecard. “States need to start planning for what they’re going to do when the federal money runs out in September. And I think few states have actually started that discussion.”

To expedite rehabilitation, Virginia lawmakers granted an additional $418 million last year. Massachusetts officials allocated $8 million for literacy tutoring and $3.2 million for math tutoring for kids falling behind in the fourth and eighth grades.

However, a few other states with slower development said that they were altering their tactics or increasing their investment to hasten the pace of change.

Virginia provided schools with a “playbook” outlining how to create successful tutoring programs in addition to hiring online tutoring firms. Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, Lisa Coons, called the results of the state exams from the previous year a wake-up call.

“We weren’t recovering as fast as we needed,” Coons said in an interview.

As the federal funding runs out, states should continue to provide more academic support for pupils, according to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

“We just can’t stop now,” he said at a May 30 conference for education journalists. “The states need to recognize these interventions work. Funding public education does make a difference.”

The Alexandria district in Virginia was given an additional $2.3 million by the state to increase tutoring.
Students at Mount Vernon are split into groups and rotate through stations tailored to their skill level. Instruction is provided in both English and Spanish. The most in need of assistance receive online tutoring. A few pupils in Fletcher’s class used tutors provided by Ignite Learning, one of the firms the state employed, while donning headphones.

Jennifer Hamilton, the principal of Mount Vernon, stated that the online option has been very beneficial because tutors are in high demand.

“That’s something that we just could not provide here,” she said.

Sabrina, Ana Marisela Ventura Moreno’s 9-year-old daughter, profited greatly from additional reading assistance during second grade last year, but she’s still catching up.

“She needs to get better. She’s not at the level she should be,” the mother said in Spanish. She noted the school did not offer tutoring help this year, but she did not know why.

Education authorities in Alexandria claim that pupils who score below the competent level or nearly so are given high-intensity tutoring assistance, and they are required to give priority to students who have the highest needs. In 2023, Alexandria did worse on math and reading tests than the state average, but things are gradually getting better.

What worries officials more are the gaps: Merely 24% of the less fortunate pupils at Mount Vernon achieved proficient math scores, while 28% met reading standards. That is far less than the rates among pupils from affluent backgrounds, and the gap is widening.

If pupils are not able to get back on track, there may be dire repercussions. Communities with better test scores also tend to have higher incomes and lower rates of arrests and incarcerations, according to research from Harvard and Stanford. Pandemic setbacks have the potential to be lifelong for students if they become permanent.

About thirty states are monitored by the Education Recovery Scorecard, and every state improved in math from 2022 to 2023, if not more. In addition to Virginia, the states with declining reading scores over that time period were Nevada, California, South Dakota, Wyoming, Indiana, Oklahoma, Connecticut, and Washington.

Few states have returned to testing levels prior to the outbreak. Only Alabama saw a gain in math achievement above 2019 levels; Illinois, Mississippi, and Louisiana saw increases in reading achievement.

Between 2022 and 2023, the average reading score in Chicago Public Schools increased by the equivalent of 70% of a grade level. Less notable improvements were made in math, where children are still nearly half a grade level below where they were in 2019. Officials from Chicago attribute the improvement to adjustments made possible by roughly $3 billion in government assistance.

Hundreds of Chicagoans were taught by the district to become tutors. There is an interventionist, a teacher who specializes in assisting difficult students, in every school building.

In an attempt to get pupils interested again, the district also extended arts education and paid for home visits using federal funds.

“Academic recovery in isolation, just through ‘drill and kill,’ either tutoring or interventions, is not effective,” said Bogdana Chkoumbova, the district’s chief education officer. “Students need to feel engaged.”

In 2021, only 3% of children in the South Side of the city’s Wells Preparatory Elementary fulfilled the state reading criteria. Thirty percent last year succeeded. Teachers are compensated to collaborate on recovery outside of work hours, and the school was able to hire an interventionist for the first time thanks to federal assistance.

The institution sharpened its focus on teamwork in the classroom. In addition to facing academic problems, administrator Vincent Izuegbu stated that pupils returned from school closures with a lesser degree of maturity. Officials discovered that kids were more engaged in their studies when they centered classes around dialogue.

“We do not let 10 minutes go by without a teacher giving students the opportunity to engage with the subject,” Izuegbu said. “That’s very, very important in terms of the growth that we’ve seen.”

Olorunkemi Prior to the epidemic, Atoyebi had an A average, but she slipped behind after spending her fifth-grade school year at home. She was anxious to interrupt the lesson to ask questions when she was learning remotely. Math lessons eventually became nonsensical.
When she went back to school, she had trouble with multiplication and didn’t understand words like “dividend” and “divisor.”

Her math instructor pulled her aside for one-on-one assistance while the other students worked in groups. To aid with her multiplication table memorization, Atoyebi developed a rhyme. It gradually started to make sense.

“They made me feel more confident in everything,” said Atoyebi, now 14. “My grades started going up. My scores started going up. Everything has felt like I understand it better.”

 

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