State tests bring to light pandemic learning gap

Ronald E. Carrington | 11/18/2021, 6 p.m.
Richmond Public Schools student learning gap widened with the pandemic, according to results from this fall’s Virginia Growth Assessment testing ...
Dr. Epp

Richmond Public Schools student learning gap widened with the pandemic, according to results from this fall’s Virginia Growth Assessment testing by the state Department of Education.

The tests were mandated by legislation passed in the 2021 General Assembly session to give public school systems “baseline data showing exactly where students are in reading and mathematics as they return to school after the disruptions to learning caused by the pandemic,” stated Dr. James Lane, state superintendent of public instruction.

“Teachers will use performance data from the fall tests to craft instruction that meets the individual needs of every student, with the goal of achieving proficiency or significant growth by the end of the year,” he stated.

RPS Chief Academic Officer Tracy Epp said at the Richmond School Board meeting Nov. 8 that city students’ academic progress was deeply affected by 18 months of virtual instruction during the COVID- 19 pandemic.

The results show that Richmond’s third- through eighth-graders are reading only at a 35 percent proficiency level for their grade and reaching a 10 percent proficiency level in mathematics.

White students in those grades were at 75 percent proficiency in reading and 42 percent proficiency in math, while African-American students were at 30 percent reading proficiency and only 5 percent of math proficiency. Latino students tested at 27 percent proficiency in reading and 8 percent in math.

Proficiency for students with disabilities was recorded at 18 percent and 3 percent in reading and math, respectively.

The RPS administration said it is important to have a diagnostic assessment at this point because no data has been available for two years due to COVID-19. The first year of the pandemic there were no Standard of Learning tests. During virtual learning, very few students took the SOLs.

School Board Chairwoman Cheryl L. Burke, 7th District, told the Free Press that parents, teacher and fellow board members should be mindful that the test is simply a diagnostic assessment designed to find out where students are academically.

Dr. Lane said that the tests were based on content from the previous grade level. Assessment tests will continue next fall and winter to continue measuring growth as students catch up academically, he said.

“Results from next spring’s grade 3-8 reading and math SOL tests will capture student growth during this year, in addition to providing summary data for use in calculating school accreditation ratings,” Dr. Lane stated.

“Now the district has a platform to move forward, indicating where teachers should spend their time in reading and math instruction,” Ms. Burke told the Free Press. “This should increase students’ reading and math skills.”

Administration officials said that while students were given Chromebooks and hots spots to ensure connectivity for virtual learning during the pandemic, the learning gap also could be attributed to a number of factors. Among them are hot spots not consistently connecting in public housing; families experiencing jobless-ness and housing instability during the pandemic; some students going hungry periodically, especially on weekends; and working families not being able to stay at home during the pandemic and give their children the learning support they needed with virtual learning.

“This is a multiple year effort to climb up from where students are,” said RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras. “It will require significant investment in our students’ education, something on the order of a Marshall plan,” he said, referring to the U.S. initiative to stimulate rebuilding and economic growth in a despondent and nearly bankrupt post-World War II Europe.

To counter the reading and math gap, as well as igniting students getting up to speed, the administration is spending $55 million of the district’s federal stimulus funds to help the rebuilding process.

“We are hiring more reading coaches and specialists, providing home libraries for students, extra computer time in reading and curricula support,” Mr. Kamras said, adding that the effort is centered around the science of reading, which is also the gateway skill for math as well as other subjects.

Added to accelerating math literacy, RPS is doing an “all-hands-on-deck” approach for math literacy by deploying more math coaches.

“It will take five to 10 years to help our children get to where they need to be, as many of our students were struggling before the pandemic, which only made things worse,” he said. “This is not a one-year fix. This will take several years to complete.”