Over the past year, Haley Floyd has realized that her third-grade daughter still struggles to read sight words like “friends” that a teacher expected her to master in first grade.
As his daughter enters fourth grade in the David Douglas School District this week, Floyd worries about being late, in part due to COVID-19 disruptions. Floyd is working and couldn’t oversee home learning as much as she would have liked. His daughter attended a virtual school while in kindergarten, where she had to wear a mask, and Floyd worries it will be difficult for teachers to watch his daughter’s lips and correct her reading form .
She is not alone in her concerns. Portland-area educators, parents and students have all expressed concern that high school freshmen are not on track academically after so much pandemic-related disruption in their education. Multiple national data sets show that school closures and the shift to distance learning have caused students yawning setbacks in reading and math, though in Oregon the magnitude of that backlog learning is not yet clear.
Floyd dipped into her savings this summer to pay for a $65-an-hour reading tutor once a week, but she couldn’t afford the twice-a-week sessions recommended by the tutor. Her daughter dreads one-hour lessons, fearing she will have to read all the time.
“If she doesn’t understand things now that she’s supposed to understand, when she takes it to the next level, she’ll be late and she’ll never understand it,” Floyd said. “I don’t want her to continue to struggle.”
Most Portland-area students return to class Tuesday and Wednesday, joining others across Oregon and in Portland public schools who are already in school. Schools are providing near-normal learning conditions after more than two years impacted by COVID-19 disruptions, including online learning, masking and extended quarantines.
But students and teachers will always be faced with the need for a huge academic catch-up. New sheet music from National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card, shows that reading scores for 9-year-olds saw the biggest drop in 30 years during the pandemic, and math scores fell for the first time. Whereas national studies suggest that student learning rebounded in the 2021-22 school year, it did not accelerate enough to bring the typical student back to pre-pandemic standards.
The Oregon Department of Education is expected to release the Spring 2022 test results later this month, marking the first comprehensive examination of Oregon students’ reading, writing and math skills since 2019.
These results will provide a long-awaited indication of the extent of the pandemic disruptions that have set back students across the state and the extent to which students have recovered after classrooms reopened for in-person learning the last year. They are also expected to reveal how closely the effects of Oregon’s disrupted school years are tied to the national model, which found learning for Black, Latino and Indigenous students was significantly more impaired. than that of their white and Asian classmates.
Beaverton and Hillsboro school district officials say they expect soon-to-be-released test results will show a decline in student performance from pre-pandemic levels.
Hillsboro students began last school year with an “academic readiness gap” that was wider for some students than others, Deputy Superintendent Audrea Neville said in an email. Students learning English as a second language, students with disabilities, students of color and low-income students have been particularly affected, she said. The district has tried to help these students recover through small group work, remedial classes and after-school programs. District data suggests these students have made progress, Hillsboro spokeswoman Beth Graser said, but the district could not immediately provide numbers to illustrate the extent of student learning loss. faced when they started school in 2021 or the ground they had made up for in the spring of 2022.
Neville said it was difficult to predict where students would start the 2022-23 school year. COVID-19 has caused continued disruptions over the past year, she said, including staff shortages, absences and other obstacles. Relaxed COVID-19 quarantine rules in schools and higher COVID immunity rates this year mean it won’t be as much of an issue.
“We hope that with a more stable year, we can focus less on overcoming learning loss and more on growing all students,” she wrote.
Beaverton students also started last year with a wider range of academic needs than usual, said Ken Struckmeier, executive administrator of colleges for the district. Students appeared to be growing in their “academic habits and stamina” during the 2021-22 year, Struckmeier said.
Beaverton has used an extensive summer school schedule to help meet the academic needs of many students. Enrollment in summer programs more than tripled from 2020 to 2022, Struckmeier said. This summer, Beaverton enrolled 6,500 students in summer school, or about 17% of its 39,000 students.
NPOs SEE THE FIGHT
Reading Results, a Portland-based nonprofit, works with low-income students who are behind in reading but not so far behind that they get extra services at school. Executive director Jennifer Samuels said program staff noticed last year that first-year students started 2021-22 late compared to their counterparts in previous years, but many of them had quickly caught up. Those students would have been kindergartners during remote learning, Samuels said, and they didn’t have access to the myriad of supports they might have had in a school setting.
Students in grades two through four also started a little further behind the curve, she said. They seemed to be making similar progress to years past, but slower progress than first-graders.
“I expect we will continue to work with students who are feeling the ramifications of the pandemic” this fall, Samuels said. “Students are going to be affected again.”
Sarah Dougherty, manager of the nonprofit Elevate Oregon youth mentorship program, said 2021-22 has been one of the toughest school years she’s ever had.
The non-profit organization mentors approximately 200 vulnerable students, primarily in the Parkrose School District. Dougherty expected students to return to school in 2021 excited to learn in person, but that was not the case.
“It just wasn’t the energy,” Dougherty said. “It was hard to get the kids to care about their grades and even show up.”
Students struggled to adjust to the school structure after being given the freedom to work from home, she said. Teachers sometimes rushed to information that students did not understand in their efforts to make up for lost time. And she’s seen young people struggle with more mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, than in the past.
Over the year, Elevate students seemed to regain some of the work habits and motivation they struggled with at the start of 2021, Dougherty said. She is optimistic that the students will leave better this fall.
“I anticipate the kids will be in better headspace,” Dougherty said. “Being able to have activities again, sports games, dances and group gatherings, I think is the most important thing that will help the children to be more motivated to come back.”
The Portland-based test and research team, the NWEA, has been tracking results during the pandemic by monitoring assessments made by millions of students across the country. The researchers found that students have lost ground in math and reading during the pandemic and that low-income youth and historically marginalized students have been most affected. The group did not release data specific to Oregon.
Students made progress in reading and math at a similar rate this school year as before the pandemic, and sometimes faster, the researchers found. Younger students bounced back faster than older students, and progress in math outpaced gains in reading, improvements the researchers called “encouraging” because younger students and math performance were particularly affected.
“Truly achieving a recovery requires above-average growth – and for some students, that growth will need to be well above average,” the report says. “Otherwise, growing inequalities in education will be the lasting legacy of this pandemic.”
“YOU ARE NOT TO BLAME”
Mac McKechnie, Lilly May, Phia Ruiz and Isa Wilde sat in the shade at Powell Park last Wednesday, decompressing from their first day of classes at Cleveland High.
They said the first day of school felt normal compared to past years. They could see people’s faces and it already seemed easier to make friends.
On the first day, none of the teenagers were particularly worried about being late for school. They remember it being a constant refrain over the past year. The teachers told them that their progress was slower than in previous classes. Wilde said his English teacher would stop teaching assigned books before students had finished them, in a rush to move on to the next one.
“Last year we were all behind schedule because things were so weird,” Ruiz said. Ruiz isn’t sure if they’ve caught up on their academic backlog, but they feel better prepared than last fall.
“I don’t mind being behind when everyone else is behind,” Ruiz said. “As if you weren’t to blame.”
This story is brought to you through a partnership between The Oregonian/OregonLive and Report for America. Find out how to support this crucial work.
Sami Edge covers higher education for The Oregonian. You can reach her at [email protected] or (503) 260-3430.