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Academically Speaking, the 'COVID Slide' Could Be a Lot Worse Than You Think

Education leaders are already bracing for a worse "summer slide" this year for students whose schools were shut down to curb the spread of coronavirus. But new research suggests the so-called coronavirus or "COVID slide" is going to be significantly worse.

In one study out today, Beth Tarasawa and Megan Kuhfeld, reasearchers for NWEA, the Northwest Evaluation Association, analyzed student achievement and growth data from more than 5 million students in grades 3-8 who participated in NWEA's widely used MAP-Growth test in 2017-18. The researchers used the data to project growth trajectories for the students under two scenarios: a "melt," in which students basically gained no ground during the school closures; and a "slide," in which students lost ground academically during the closures at rates similar to those seen over the long summer break. The researchers did not include potential effects of direct instruction during the school closures, which they set as running from March 15 until next fall.

With the projections, the NWEA researchers hope to do for education what an Imperial College, London, study did for coronavirus infections: show the potential severity of the consequences if people do not act to mitigate the threat.

Prior research on summer learning loss has found students can lose somewhere from two weeks to two months of academic growth over the summer. But NWEA's projections suggest learning loss related to these closures would be anything but typical: If students return to school campuses in the fall without continuity of instruction during the closures, they could have retained only about 70 percent of their reading progress, compared to a normal year. 

NWEA reading COVID forecast.JPG

And math looks worse: Depending on the grade, students were projected to lose anywhere from half to all of their academic growth from the last year, compared to normal student growth.

NWEA math COVID forecast.JPG

And those projections are likely to be conservative for vulnerable students; they don't include the effects of students' trauma or differences in access to educational supports during the closures, Tarasawa said.

"In some ways you might say this COVID-slide projection is Pollyanna," said Tarasawa, "I think for some kids, this is going to be really traumatic. So when we start to think about homelessness and food insecurity and all these other traumas, the variation in that slope is going to be, I think, potentially a more dramatic downfall.

"This isn't meant to be doomsday; it's meant to get people to think about the reality of what teachers are going to be facing at restart" of instruction, said Tarasawa, the executive vice president for research at NWEA.

In a separate article also released this morning in Education Next, summer learning loss researcher Paul Von Hipple, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that the summer learning loss may not be the best comparison for the pandemic closures, because it has been unclear how much extra instructional activities wealthier parents really do dedicate to their children in summers, compared to low-income parents.

But, Von Hippel writes, "The current crisis is different. It's not a vacation, as I keep telling my 10-year-old daughter, and there's still half a semester's worth of curriculum to learn. If families differ in their ability to support their children's learning, especially during an economic crisis, this is when we're going to see it."

Unequal Loss

The NWEA study found upper elementary students faced potentially the biggest losses during school closures, in part because 4th and 5th grades are usually a time of rapid academic growth.

"Younger students are both making more gains through the school year and then they're losing more if they're not getting a routine practice in the summer," said Chad Aldeman a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Associates. He was not part of the study but studies issues around summer learning. "You can also see this in terms of what students learn; the fundamental skills drive more gains than some of the later incremental changes that we see in older grades."

Likewise, Tarasawa suggested students may hold a little more academic ground in reading in part because "anecdotally we find it's easier to keep reading in front of kids, to get them access to library materials and keep them in front of books. It's more difficult in a lot of ways to teach math to the curriculum and the new standards that we have" long-distance, she said.

In the 320,000-student Clark County public schools in Nevada, Superintendent Jesus Jara has initially focused on simply getting students fed and closing a massive digital divide, as 120,000 students do not have the devices or internet access to begin digital remote learning. But he said the study has made him rethink how he and his staff need to start planning for the return to school.

"When you look at that steep curve, I was shocked. I had expected it, but I was shocked at how steep it was," Jara said. 

"This has really gotten me thinking on what is school going to look like when we come back. What does it look like for 4th and 5th graders? ...  Imagine my student groups on special [education students], my English-language learners, my free and reduced lunch-eligible students; what does it look like for them?" Jara said. "It's really about changing that instructional experience for kids to address some of the challenges. So what opportunities can we actively put in place now to really ease the bottom slide? You know, we're talking about breaking the [coronavirus infection rate] curve right now. How do we then break this curve and stop this steep slide for our kids?"

For now, Jara said, Clark County is considering summer bridge programs and an earlier start next year, as well as more targeted interventions for English-learners, who have had particular difficulty accessing the district's remote learning resources. He said he hopes to use some of the federal coronavirus relief stimulus money to plan professional development for teachers and parents, to help them support students better in distance-learning contexts.

Christopher Minnich, NWEA's chief executive officer, recommended that states and districts who are now creating their remote-learning plans simultaneously start to lay the groundwork for targeting interventions and approaches for next fall.

Von Hippel also concluded that students facing this crisis could be in a better position than their peers were during earlier natural disasters, because technology for distance learning is rapidly improving and parents may have more focus on helping their children continue regular lessons. And here, even if the COVID slide isn't a perfect comparison with summer learning loss, educators may be able to learn from successful prior interventions for catching students up over the summer.

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