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Study will chart how many months of learning NC students lost in the pandemic

East Mecklenburg High students taking tests in the school media center.
Ann Doss Helms
East Mecklenburg High students taking tests in the school media center.

Wednesday’s state Board of Education meeting will bring a potentially groundbreaking report on exactly how much North Carolina’s students fell behind during the disrupted 2020-21 school year.

Staff from the state’s Office of Learning Recovery worked with SAS, a Cary-based data analysis firm, to compare projections for how students would have performed during normal times with how they actually tested in 2021.

This is a more sophisticated analysis than what journalists and others have done simply looking at 2021 results and comparing them with previous years. SAS is the company that does North Carolina’s school growth and teacher value-added calculations. This report is based on a new formula that looks at all data available for individual students to predict their 2021 performance on exams. The gap between projections and actual scores will be translated into months of lost learning.

In a media briefing last week, the Department of Public Instruction’s point person on the study said none of this is intended to shame school boards or educators.

“What we saw in terms of student performance is not the result of anything that districts have done (or) could have done,” said Michael Maher, executive director of the Office of Learning Recovery. “Teachers, principals, there’s nothing anyone could have done, really, to mitigate the impact of COVID over the last 18 months.”

The General Assembly required this study, which will continue for several years to chart students’ recovery. Ultimately, it’s designed to identify successful recovery strategies and help policymakers identify needs.

“This allows us to really look at which students have been most disproportionately impacted, which parts of the state have been most disproportionately impacted, and then how can we align our resources and prioritize our funding to meet the needs of children in those places,” Maher said. “And then finally what we are interested in doing is looking at promising practices.”

Wednesday’s report will look at state-level results. Eventually, the numbers will be reported by district and school. Maher said it will take several months to present all the data.

The report is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. State Board of Education meetings stream live on the board’s YouTube channel.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.