Learning: Local students have not shown signs of significant learning loss but experts say the problem is more pronounced at the state and national levels. SMDP image

With 17 months having passed since all students were in the physical classroom, there are certainly gaps in students’ knowledge, but compared to peoples’ fears for virtual learning outcomes and national public school trends, SMMUSD students are demonstrating impressive learning retention.

There are students whose learning suffered more over the course of the remote school year — notably low-income students, English language learners and students with disabilities — which is unfortunately the student groups that were most likely to struggle pre-pandemic. According to Assistant Superintendent Jacqueline Mora, the district is aware of these challenges and targeting these populations with specific attention and learning support.

When it comes to the overall student body, both regular testing within students’ courses and standardized test results did not show cause for alarm. In subject tests student grades were comparable to pre-pandemic school years, while standardized tests captured a slight decrease in student ability.

This learning loss was seen primarily in students’ reading and writing skills with the number of students requiring Tier 3 English learning support increasing from 625 in the fall to 773 in the winter. This represents a 3 percent change across the district’s entire student body and was mainly concentrated in Kindergarten through 3rd Grade.

“We didn’t have a significant decrease or significant data that showed that there was actual learning loss,” said Mora. “We can see that we needed to focus and prepare to provide support to our students that are in that tier three area.”

Tier three support requires intervention outside of the regular classroom schedule and can take the form of small group instruction or individual lessons. Over the course of last school year, SMMUSD increased both its after school and summer support programs and is continuing these expanded offerings this fall. At the elementary and middle school level 499 students participated in summer learning opportunities this year as did 464 high school students.

SMMUSD’s standardized test results for the 2020 to 2021 school year did yield different trends than those captured on a national level. Education research non-profit Northwest Evaluation Association found that using a sample of five million students, math was the subject area where students struggled the most.

“Students are making learning gains, but relative to what we would expect in a typical school year, those gains were lower than normal, particularly in math and particularly for students of color and students in high poverty schools,” said Megan Kuhfeld, discussing the key findings of NWEA’s study.

Teachers’ Union President Claudia Bautista-Nicholas agrees with the districts’ assessment that math was not a specific problem area last year and said that both her son’s experience in the classroom and anecdotal reports from teachers support this.

She attributes part of this success to the excellent job teachers did at creating math videos so that students could review concepts if they were confused, distracted or struggled with internet connectivity during class.

Bautista-Nicholas did see a discrepancy in the quality of learning environments for low-income students.

“You have kids that live in a one bedroom apartment with five family members,” said Bautista-Nicholas.“I had kids that were parents that were caring for their little ones while they were online with me. I had other kids that were in that one bedroom with their two other siblings, who were also online with teachers, trying to listen to me and trying to help their siblings access whatever it was that their teachers were trying to tell them.”

An additional struggle for remote teaching was finding a way for students to practice hands-on learning skills, which was a major finding of a Rand Corporation study of national public schools.

“Half of principals told us in fall 2020 that they have a major or very major need for strategies or resources to address students’ lost opportunities to engage in hands-on learning,” said Melissa Diliberti, assistant policy researcher at RAND Corporation.

Bautista-Nicholas said this was a concern she heard teachers in the district consistently voice.

“The teachers that teach science couldn’t really do a lot of the laboratory practices that they normally did,” said Bautista-Nicholas. “The hands-on experience was something that they all felt that they weren’t able to really accomplish online.”

Bautista-Nicholas also pointed to music and languages as subject areas where teachers saw their students struggling.

Music was difficult to teach over Zoom because time lags precluded most students from being able to sing or play an instrument together. Languages were difficult because many students were consistently using Google Translate, which delayed their development of speaking skills.

With all of these subject areas back in person, these concerns are less pertinent this fall and the general consensus among academic experts and district leaders is that as long as students are engaged they should be able to recover these skills without issue.

“I think for many students just with some additional support this year being extra learning time, or additional review as a part of kind of catch up and acceleration learning, that many students will be fine,” said Kuhfeld.

SMMUSD teachers are adapting their teaching this fall to help students successfully transition back into the classroom and catch-up on any missed learning. There is an emphasis on social emotional skills and community building, and teachers have been trained in trauma informed classrooms. Mental health services are also available to all students K-12.

“We know that students and families experienced different impacts of the pandemic in different ways, so we are making sure that our teachers are equipped with those tools in order to support students,” said Mora.

There is also an awareness at the district that while students may have struggled in certain subject areas during the pandemic, they also learned a lot from the challenging experience and developed new skills.

“I think they’ve learned how to be resilient, be flexible and they have overcome incredible difficulty,” said Bautista-Nicholas. “These are also kids who saw their parents lose their jobs, who are dealing with probably the loss of a grandparent because of COVID.”

Teachers are striving to ensure students don’t come into the classroom feeling like they are lacking or already behind and are instead focusing on celebrating their strengths and triumphs over the past year.

“Maybe our students didn’t master all the skills that we hoped for in the academic year but our students developed other skill sets that are going to take them above and beyond,” said Mora. “They had to adjust and transition to a virtual environment, they had to build relationships online and learn how to navigate technology.”