Falling behind: Report tallies up ‘unfinished learning’ by DC students

Students in D.C. fell significantly behind last school year compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to a new report from education group EmpowerK12.

The most significant drops in reading and math levels came among students considered at-risk — who make up about half of D.C. students — as well as students with disabilities and Black and Latinx students.

The report on learning loss — or “unfinished learning,” as the report calls it — is an update to research conducted last December of the first few months of the 2020-2021 school year, and covers the entire school year, based on data provided by D.C. Public Schools and public charter schools in the District.

The updated report was released Tuesday.

Overall, the report tallied up three to four months of “unfinished learning” among students in grades 3 through 8 and overall flatter academic growth rates throughout the school year compared to pre-pandemic trends.

Other findings: Fewer of the youngest students finished the year reading at grade level. Overall, the percentage of students in kindergarten through second grade reading at grade level dropped 18%, with a more than 27% drop for at-risk students and a 25% drop for Black students.

In addition, students in grades 2 through 8 who took English Language Arts and math tests ended the year achieving at lower percentiles than last year. Overall, ELA scores dropped 14.3 percentile points for at-risk students and 13.7 percentile points for Black students.

Math scores dropped 13.8 percentile points for at-risk students and 13.7 percentile points for Black students, according to the research.

One potential bright spot: The research found that pivoting to in-person instruction, which many schools did for at least some students last school year, helped fill some gaps in students’ learning.

Offering in-person classes “likely translated to more or to higher growth rate for some of our students,” said Joshua Boots, executive director of EmpowerK12, at an event unveiling the research. “For students who were fully remote the full year, we saw that across all of our sample students, they met 47% of their growth targets.”

That rose to 57% for students who returned at some point during the fourth quarter of the school year and 66% for students who returned in the third quarter.

“This important report confirms the toll this pandemic has had on our city’s learners — both academically and emotionally — after 18 months of virtual and hybrid learning,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn in a statement. “While a full return to in-person learning was the first and most important step to accelerate learning, Mayor Bowser has prioritized historic investments to provide high-impact tutoring and mental-health services to all D.C. students. These new, targeted supports are critical to our shared recovery and closing the widening opportunity gaps we are seeing in our schools.”

During the Empower12 event, Kihn said increasing rates of vaccination remains the “No. 1 tool” for mitigating learning loss, because vaccinated teachers and children who don’t exhibit symptoms don’t have to quarantine if potentially exposed to the coronavirus.

The research found that four in 10 students said they had to quarantine last school year because either they tested positive or were a close contact of someone who did.

Another key tool is a $41 million investment in high-impact tutoring over the next five years, which includes tutoring options outside of traditional school settings.

Christina Grant, the acting state superintendent of education, said investments in teachers are also needed.

“It’s November, but in the life of an educator, it feels like June … So we have to figure out, how do we refuel ourselves, how do we reinvigorate ourselves? … Right now we have to make sure folks don’t give up as they’re just trying to get their legs under them again.”

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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