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National scorecard shows big CMS setbacks, but says causes aren’t clear

A math class at Coulwood STEM Academy, one of the state's highest-rated schools for growth in 2022.
Ann Doss Helms
A math class at Coulwood STEM Academy, one of the state's highest-rated schools for growth in 2022.

A new study by researchers from Harvard and Stanford universities shows students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools lost almost a full academic year in math during the pandemic.

But one of the lead researchers says people shouldn’t be quick to pin that loss on decisions about how long district leaders kept students in remote classes.

“School closures played a role, but it wasn’t the only thing. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be the primary thing driving these differences in achievement losses nationally,” said Tom Kane, an education economist with the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

If you’re thinking you’ve already seen a lot of reports on learning loss during the pandemic, you’re not wrong. State test scores for 2021 and 2022 showed a big drop and an incomplete rebound, with CMS taking big hits. The Nation’s Report Card scores, released last week, added more context, including the fact that CMS scores had dropped significantly but compared well with other urban districts.

What the Stanford and Harvard team did with The Education Recovery Scorecard was combine the two, using the national exams to standardize results from various states, then translate them into a consistent measure that shows how much of an academic year the students lost between 2019 and 2022. So far they’ve calculated that for districts in 29 states that have posted their state results, including North and South Carolina.

Researchers with North Carolina’s Office of Learning Recovery have also translated statewide changes in scores into months of learning lost, but they have not broken that down by district.

Causes and correlations not clear

The national report confirms some familiar trends: Losses in math were bigger than those in reading. High-poverty districts saw bigger setbacks than those with lower poverty levels, and urban districts generally took bigger hits than suburban and rural ones.

Those urban districts also tended to spend more time in remote learning. Going into this research, Kane says, he believed that would be a strong factor in losses. He said the results have been a surprise.

“Achievement losses varied widely among districts that spent the same share of 2020-21 in remote learning,” a summary of findings says. “Just as California, a state with long school closures, had losses smaller than Maine (a state with low rates of school closures), many districts which spent much of the year in remote learning had smaller losses than districts which were in person.”

And even districts that spent very little time in remote classes saw significant drops in scores, the report notes.

North Carolina comparisons

Kane, who grew up in North Carolina, said he hasn’t studied the state formally, but some comparisons pose questions.

Winston Salem-Forsyth Schools lost a full year in reading and math, according to the report. CMS lost almost as much in math, while students fell about two-thirds of a year in reading.

Durham, which has a poverty level similar to those districts and, like CMS, spent much of the 2020-21 year in virtual learning, saw smaller declines: Not quite two-thirds of a year in math and 40% of a year in reading.

Wake County, the state’s largest district, and Iredell-Statesville Schools, a much smaller district in the Charlotte region, logged still smaller losses: About half a year in math and roughly one-third of a year in reading. Both have significantly lower poverty levels than CMS.

Kane says it will take more national research to determine what factors shaped the drop in scores.

“It may have been related to broadband access outside of school, it may have been related to the kind of jobs parents had,” Kane said.

For instance, parents working in front-line jobs may have had higher exposure to COVID-19, resulting in more family disruption. Parents who could work from home had more ability to support their kids during remote instruction. And pandemic-related job losses also disrupted children’s lives.

Raising the alarm

But Kane says the point of the new report is less about assigning blame than alerting state and local officials, as well as community groups and businesses that can help, about the scope of the need.

School districts have millions of dollars in federal aid to spend on recovery, but Kane fears they’ll focus too much of it on strategies that, based on pre-pandemic research, aren’t likely to make the kind of difference needed now.

“I’m urging districts to focus on spending that increases students’ instructional time,” he said.  “If children have missed the equivalent of 90% of a school year worth of learning, it should be obvious that making up for that large a loss is not just going to require, you know, a few extra days or a small percentage of students receiving tutors.”

In Kane’s view, the magnitude of loss may require a solution that’s costly and probably unpopular: Revising school calendars so students spend more days in class.

“It’s hard for me to imagine districts making up for a loss of this magnitude without extending the school year for a couple of years at least, and/or dramatically increasing summer school enrollment,” he said.

In North Carolina, extending the school calendar would fall to the General Assembly. Districts have also been required to offer summer recovery camps, using federal COVID-19 relief money, but student participation has been low in many districts.

A ray of hope?

The drumbeat of grim news about pandemic setbacks can be discouraging. But Kane says one of the biggest sources of hope comes from taking a long-range view of North Carolina.

One analysis based on the scorecard looks at how eighth grade math scores on the Nation’s Report Card climbed steadily in almost three decades prior to the pandemic.

Chart showing changes in Nation's Report Card math scores. North Carolina is the bar at far left, with the biggest gains between 1990 and 2019.
Chart showing changes in Nation's Report Card math scores. North Carolina is the bar at far left, with the biggest gains between 1990 and 2019.

“Between 1990 and 2019, North Carolina saw the largest improvement of any state in terms of its eighth grade math achievement,” Kane said — gains that were significantly beyond what any other state saw.

“So it’s not that we don’t know how to improve things or that these systems are completely hopeless,” he said. “It’s just that we’ve had a major setback and we can’t let it become permanent.”

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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.