SCS students falling behind in some subjects; COVID-19 learning loss not as bad as expected

SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — The Shelby County School District is pushing almost one year out of the classroom, and teaching online since the pandemic hit.

As we all know, with remote classes, learning loss is piling up.

State data projects an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in third-grade reading and a 65% drop in math.

A typical day of mastering fractions in Emma Sisson’s fifth grade optional class at William H. Brewster Elementary includes questions about whether her students can see their screens or not.

Like many teachers, Sisson is juggling a different equation including Wi-Fi delays and technology glitches which all add up to a loss of learning time.

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“You’re constantly (inaudible) attention as a teacher of do I focus on kids whose Wi-Fi is working perfectly and who raised their hand and I don’t have to ask to turn cameras on or do I spend saying no I’m going to take a little time to make sure all my students are engaged but in the process,” Sisson said. “I think it’s a timing thing.”

Shelby County Schools performed two diagnostic tests to gauge how much learning loss happened since schools closed last March.

The i-Ready test is a nationwide look at proficiency data from the previous year. The Fall 2020 data show the COVID-19 learning loss wasn’t as bad as predicted, but it’s still troubling.

The report showed 28% of Kindergarten through eighth-grade students scored two or more grade levels behind in reading which is up from 27% the year before.

MORE: Students at Millington elementary school temporarily move to virtual learning due to COVID-19

However, in math, the decline was higher. The report showed 29% of K-8 students scored two or more grade levels behind, compared to 23% last year.

Additionally, this report showed exponential gains for students in K-2nd grade. SCS staff said those numbers may have been skewed by overzealous parent monitors.

“Give them opportunities to really productively struggle,” said Dr. Antonio Burt, SCS Chief Academic Officer. “If there’s struggling taking place with certain performance tasks that’s provided by the teachers and to allow students the opportunity to not only productively struggle but learn from their learnings and give teachers an opportunity to check for understanding without support from the individuals that’s at home.”

On a second test called Mastery Connect, the district measured which concepts students learned.

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This report shows that almost 59% of first and second-grade students met learning standards in English, but the numbers are much lower for older students. Fewer than 20% of students in third through eighth grade and 26% of high schoolers met English standards.

The data shows similar trends for math. The report showed about 62% of first and second graders met math standards followed by 25% of third through fifth graders, 9% of middle schoolers and only 4% of high school students.

“For example, math and science, those are two disciplines where you know learning tends to build upon each day, and what the preliminary data shows is the impact of COVID and then how learning takes place with math,” Burt said. “For example, algebra 1, algebra 2, geometry, kids tended to struggle with either retaining or mastering some of those in standards and skills with those disciplinaries

Superintendent Joris Ray said nothing can replace in-person learning, but he said classrooms won’t reopen until it’s safe.

“This is what I battle as superintendent, um, it’s battling, as you say learning loss versus losing lives,” Ray said. “There are so many factors that play into returning back to school.”

The non-profit Memphis Education Fund believes the pandemic is revealing how much school districts here and across the state need to re-evaluate education, using a year-long model to avoid more learning loss.

“Leveraging technology to a greater extent but it’s also making sure we have a more balanced year-round calendar that is no longer on an old school agrarian system, but it’s more phased on technology and a more forward-thinking society as we think about preparing our young people,” said Terrence Patterson, Chief Executive Order at the Memphis Education Fund

The district is also hosting data nights for parents where staff explain some of the testing data, how it affects their kids and the resources available for families.

Plus SCS is ramping up with enrichment classes during fall and spring breaks along with even some Saturday academy sessions.