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Children wearing face masks walk in a distanced line across a school’s grounds.
Kindergartners are back in class for the first time in a year at the 9th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles on April 13.
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The debate over how to handle kids’ “lost year” of learning

Some want to hold students back. Experts say there’s a better way.

Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

The moment of truth for Gregory Heights Elementary School came last June.

The school in Burien, Washington, had closed its buildings in the spring when the pandemic forced lockdowns around the country. That meant students — about 50 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and about 40 percent of whom are learning English as a second language — traded classrooms for worksheets and Zoom meetings, and saw their teachers a lot less than before. After a few months of this, “we began to just think about how many hours of lost instruction we had,” principal Robin Totten told Vox. “Going into the next year, if that didn’t change, what were we going to do?”

One option was remediation: taking kids back and redoing everything they’d missed. But research from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina showed this approach didn’t work well — students got bored doing work below their grade level and didn’t make enough progress. So Gregory Heights, along with its district, Highline Public Schools, tried something different: acceleration, in which students keep doing grade-level work but get targeted help catching up when they don’t understand something. Instead of going back and redoing everything with students, it’s about “just giving them those little scaffolded pieces, so that they can tackle the grade-level standard lesson,” Totten said.

It’s still early, but the results have been encouraging: “From fall to winter we saw really great growth” in student learning, Totten said. And the approach could be a model for other schools now trying to help kids rebound from not one but two school years deeply marked by the pandemic.

Ever since schools around the country closed their buildings last spring, educators and families alike have been worried about how the shift online would affect kids’ learning. Early research was concerning: A June 2020 analysis found that the average student could fall seven months behind due to the pandemic, with Latinx students losing nine months and Black students losing 10. More recent studies have been more encouraging, showing students losing ground in math but not in reading. However, researchers are concerned that many students of color and those living in poverty aren’t being captured in the data.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner gives kindergartener Isabella Hernandez a new backpack. Some LAUSD schools have reopened for in-person classes, with safety standards and mandatory Covid-19 testing of students in place.
Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Now, with many schools likely to reopen full time in the fall, districts around the country are facing the challenge of figuring out how much their students have missed and how to address it. Some are planning a remedial approach, even holding students back a grade so they can repeat all the material they missed. But some experts say that approach could actually widen educational inequity by depriving Black, Indigenous, and other students of color of access to grade-level work. What’s more effective, they say, is what Gregory Heights is doing: keeping kids moving forward, even if they need a little help to stay on track.

“Our tendency as a system has been to go backward and meet kids where they are,” Bailey Cato Czupryk — vice president of practices, diagnostics, and impact at TNTP, an education nonprofit that advocates for acceleration — told Vox. But “you don’t close the gaps we see in performance by holding a subset of kids back and deciding they don’t get to try grade-level stuff.”

We’re just starting to find out how the pandemic has affected kids’ learning

When schools moved their classes online in the spring of 2020, teachers and parents had lots of reasons to worry. First were basic issues of access: In a 2019 analysis by the Associated Press, about 17 percent of students nationwide lacked a computer at home, and 18 percent lacked broadband internet access. Low-income families and families of color were especially likely to be without these resources, according to the AP. That meant a significant number of students simply couldn’t attend remote classes, although many school districts sent iPads or laptops to students’ homes in an effort to remedy the problem.

Then there were the pressures online learning put on families: Remote lessons often require a parent or other adult to help the student with technology and staying on task, especially at younger ages, and that simply wasn’t possible in many households, whether because parents were working during school hours or because they had limited English fluency or other barriers. Again, low-income families were more likely to face obstacles in helping kids with online school, experts said.

On top of these challenges has been the trauma of the pandemic itself, during which millions of people have lost jobs, countless families have fallen into poverty, and nearly 40,000 children have lost a parent to Covid-19. Learning new material under such circumstances has been, for many students, difficult, to say the least.

Given all that, recent research on learning during the pandemic is, in some ways, reassuring. In fall 2020, the nonprofit NWEA studied students’ performance on reading and math assessment tests, and compared it to scores for students in the same grades in fall 2019, before the pandemic began. In math, the 2020 students scored about 5 to 10 percentile points lower than the 2019 group — a “moderate” drop, NWEA research head Beth Tarasawa told NPR. But in reading, students this fall scored about the same on average as they did before the pandemic.

The group also measured individual students’ performance over time, comparing their test scores in early 2020 with their scores in the fall. “We saw, on average, students showed growth in both math and reading across the grade levels in almost all grades,” Tarasawa told NPR. “Most students made some learning gains in both reading and math since Covid started.”

But amid the positive news, the researchers also found something deeply concerning. About a quarter of students never took the assessment tests this fall, meaning they’re not represented in NWEA’s analysis. And those students, the group found, were more likely to be Black, Indigenous, or other people of color, or to attend high-poverty schools — essentially, the groups that experts were already concerned about with regard to remote education.

Sabrina Werley works with fourth grade student Jeremiah Ruiz at Cumru Elementary School in Cumru, Pennsylvania, on April 14.
Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Some students might not have taken the tests because they lacked internet access, while others may have stopped going to school entirely. Indeed, chronic absenteeism has been a serious problem during the pandemic, with hundreds or even thousands of students missing from classes in some districts. Miami-Dade County public schools, for example, opened with more than 10,000 fewer students than in 2019, according to ABC News. The district sent teams of social workers to locate and help the students, but as of March, about 1,000 remained unaccounted for.

“We believe that these were the students who were in crisis prior to the Covid-19 crisis,” Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told ABC. “These were probably poor students, probably English language learners, learners who may have had a disability, may have had home insecurity, food insecurity, and may have had a fragile immigration status.”

Overall, the missing test scores in the NWEA are yet more evidence of something that’s concerned educators since Covid-19 first hit: It seems to be having the biggest impact on students who already faced inequities at school.

“We already knew that Black and brown students weren’t getting the support that they need even before the pandemic,” Kayla Patrick, a senior data and policy analyst at the Education Trust, told Vox. “And then the pandemic made all of that worse.”

Some places are responding to the pandemic by holding kids back

Now, the question is what schools and districts should do to address the impact of the pandemic on students in ways that shrink those inequalities rather than widening them.

Some districts are likely to treat 2020 as something of a lost year, Czupryk told Vox. Those districts basically take the view that “you should take kids back to where they were in spring 2020 and do all the stuff they would have done,” Czupryk said.

At the extreme end of that approach would be actually holding kids back a grade. Eighteen states have laws on the books requiring students to repeat third grade if they don’t meet certain literacy standards, Politico reports, most inspired by a Florida law passed in 2002. The latest such law is Tennessee’s, passed in January in an effort to address the pandemic’s impact on learning.

Second grader Michelle Sharp, 8, arrives for the first day of partial in-person instruction at Garfield Elementary School in Oakland, California, on March 30.
Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

But experts say having students repeat a grade can backfire, pointing to research showing that the practice stigmatizes students, harms their self-esteem, and makes them more likely to drop out of school. In particular, “I don’t want to see retention policies really target Black and brown communities and have only those kids having to repeat a grade,” Patrick said.

More broadly, some say there’s a danger in simply assuming that particular kids have lost ground academically because of their race or family income. That’s because if schools overestimate students’ learning loss, they may fail to give them grade-level work, pushing them even further behind, Chase Nordengren, a senior research scientist with NWEA, told Vox. “Assumptions are really a threat to equity, because they limit the kinds of experiences that students have access to.”

Even as we acknowledge inequities in access, Nordengren said, it’s important to “understand that every student is different, and when we come back this fall, every student’s individual level of proficiency is going to need to be understood really well.”

But experts say the better approach is “acceleration”

And for students who have missed out on a lot this year, experts say there’s a better way to help than just making them repeat material. The best approach, they argue, is to keep kids at grade level but give them specific help when they face an obstacle due to something they missed, a process sometimes called targeted remediation or “just in time” learning.

At Gregory Heights Elementary, for example, third graders are learning double-digit multiplication right now. But some of them don’t have their single-digit multiplication facts down yet. Rather than holding them back or putting them in a remedial class, teachers can pull them into small Zoom groups to figure out what their specific challenges are. When teachers worked with one student individually, they found that she actually only had trouble multiplying sixes and sevens. So the question, Totten said, was, “what could we do with sixes and sevens to help her learn those more quickly?”

Another student, who has special needs, is still working on being able to spell and handwrite letters. But his grade is working on five-paragraph essays. Rather than keep him from working on essays until his handwriting is perfect, teachers have him use Google Translate to dictate his work into a computer. “He can still look for the organization, like his class is doing, he can still develop his theme, he can still develop his claim,” Totten said. “We know that we still have to work with him on actually writing himself and being able to do the spelling piece, but using a strategy, he’s able to do the work at his grade level.”

Gregory Heights started using the approach in September, and so far educators are pleased with the results, at least as measured by assessments students took in fall and winter. Students began returning to school buildings on a hybrid schedule in March, and the district has not yet announced a schedule for the fall. But whatever happens, Gregory Heights plans to continue and refine the acceleration approach, helping teachers identify what skills are the most important to teach in a limited amount of time. “If I’m truly going to accelerate,” Totten asks, “am I going to do every one of these lessons, or am I going to cut out some of these lessons and spend more time on other lessons?”

District-wide, the real test of the method may not come until next spring, when Washington students are likely to take their next round of statewide tests (the tests were paused this year due to the pandemic). But previous research by TNTP has found that when students who have fallen behind are given grade-level work along with stronger instruction and higher expectations, they catch up more quickly than those who don’t get grade-level assignments. The group has seen what students “are capable of when we as grown-ups let them try, rather than deciding before they even get up to the plate that they’re not going to get a hit,” Czupryk said.

First-graders Kiara Morris, 6 (left), and Tatiana Morris, 7, sanitize their hands as they arrive for the first day of partial in-person instruction at Garfield Elementary School in Oakland, California, on March 30.
Jessica Christian/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Districts from Alabama to California are taking such messages to heart and planning an acceleration approach to help their students catch up after the past 18 months, according to the Washington Post. And the Department of Education recommended an acceleration approach to address pandemic learning gaps in a reopening handbook released earlier this month, which also noted that funds from the American Rescue Plan can be used for tutoring or summer school programs to help support acceleration.

The increased interest in the approach could help districts address the longstanding inequities that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, in a 2018 report, TNTP found that classes composed predominantly of students from higher-income families spent twice as much time on grade-level work as classes with students from lower-income backgrounds. An emphasis on acceleration could help districts examine what they offer their students and make sure they’re giving every student the opportunity to excel.

“It’s not like we had an exceptionally just, equal, or equitable education system before the pandemic,” Czupryk said. “These gaps existed before.”

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