Briefly Stated: August 18, 2021

August 17, 2021 7 min read
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Learning Off in ’20-21; Those Most Harmed Are Not White, Asian

This is unlikely to surprise anyone, but it still needs to be said.

Students across the country learned at a more sluggish pace than usual during the COVID-battered 2020-21 school year. What’s more, the already-yawning gap in test scores widened, with Black, Latino, American Indian, and Alaska Native students losing ground faster than their white and Asian peers.

That’s according to an analysis by NWEA, a nonprofit research organization that offers assessments to measure academic growth and proficiency. Its MAP growth test was administered to about 5.5 million public school students last fall, winter, and spring.

The data present one of the clearest snapshots yet of how students performed in a year marked by widespread virtual learning, hybrid instruction, and growing concerns about social-justice issues.

Score declines were evident across the board. In reading, students in grades 3-8 started the school year in roughly the same place as children entering those grades in the 2018-19 school year (the most recent pandemic-free school year). But the 2020-21 students ended the year as much as 6 percentile points behind their 2018-19 counterparts.

In math, the 2020-21 students were already struggling to make up ground. They entered the school year behind where other children in the same grades had been in 2018-19. By year’s end, they were behind them by 8 percentile points to 12 percentile points.

For example, in spring 2019, the median percentile reading score for 3rd graders was 57. That dropped to 51 in the 2020-21 school year. In math, the median percentile score for 3rd graders fell from 55 to 43 in that same period.

Black and Latino students experienced greater declines than their white and Asian peers. For instance, Black and Latino 3rd graders fell 10 points behind their 2019 counterparts in reading, while white students were only 4 points behind, and Asian students were just 5 points behind.

Declines were even greater in math. For instance, Latino 3rd graders scored 17 points below their 2019 counterparts, while Black 3rd graders were 15 points behind. White and Asian American students were 9 points behind the 2019 children.

Students in high-poverty schools fell further behind their more affluent peers, too.

Secret’s Out of the Bag. We Now Know How Many Aspiring Teachers Pass Licensing Test on First Try

Want to know how many aspiring teachers fail the first time they take their licensing exam? We’re not telling.

That pretty much sums up how much the public was told about the quality, or at least the test-taking ability, of teachers coming out of education programs—until now.

After collecting information for two years, the National Council on Teacher Quality unveiled teacher-candidates’ first-time passing rates last month for 38 states and the District of Columbia.

Those data show that many would-be teachers do not pass their state’s licensing exam on the first go-round. And nearly a quarter who fail don’t try again, quashing their plans to teach. That’s even higher for test-takers of color—30 percent.

Other professions that require entry exams, like nursing, law, and accounting, report first-time passing rates to monitor the quality of programs’ preparation. NCTQ and other experts argue that those in teacher education should readily report it, too.

One thing they’d find: Even among teacher-prep programs within the same state, there are significant differences. NCTQ found an average 56 percentage-point gap between the institutions with the highest first-time passing rate and those with the lowest. And six states have at least one teacher-prep program from which not a single test-taker passed on their first stab.

In 1998, Congress passed legislation aimed at holding teacher education accountable. Reporting passing rates on licensing exams was one of the provisions. But many institutions reported 100 percent passing rates. That’s because they required candidates to pass the exam in order to complete their preparation program—and they only reported the data for program-completers.

“The data was effectively useless,” said Kate Walsh, the president of NCTQ.

Although the law was rewritten, the outcome hasn’t shed light on the results of those first-time test-takers.

Wondering who didn’t cough up their data for NCTQ? California, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.

And why not? As Walsh recounted, a schools’ chiefs in one of those states noted, “We’re going to look bad.”

Calif. Becomes First State to Feed Students for Free

When California public school students head to classes come fall, they can eat for free—all 6.2 million of them—regardless of family income.

The undertaking, made possible by an unexpected budget surplus, will be the largest free student-lunch program in the country. School officials, lawmakers, anti-hunger organizations, and parents are applauding it as a pioneering way to prevent the stigma of accepting free lunches and feed more hungry children.

“This is so historic. It’s beyond life-changing,” said Erin Primer, the director of food services for the San Luis Coastal Unified school district on California’s central coast.

Several U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, and Chicago, already offer free school meals for all. But until recently, statewide universal meal programs were considered too costly and unrealistic. California became the first state to adopt a universal program, and Maine has followed.

“We’ve completely leveled the playing field when it comes to school food,” Primer said. The extra funding will also allow her to offer tastier, better-quality food such as fresh bread, produce, and cheese from local producers, she said.

Under federal rules, a family of four must make less than $34,000 a year to qualify for free meals and $48,000 to qualify for reduced-price meals. The caps shift annually but are based on federal poverty measures that don’t take into account the high cost of living and taxes in California.

About 60 percent of California students qualify, but experts say the number who need help is much higher in a state with vast income inequality. Communities of color are disproportionately affected, and immigrant communities in particular are fearful of applying because of detailed forms that ask intrusive questions such as family income, Social Security number, and children’s immigration status.

Asian American History Now a Must in Illinois

And speaking of firsts … add Illinois to the list.

In the wake of increased violence directed at Asians during the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s going to require the teaching of Asian American history.

Every public elementary and high school will have to include a unit on the history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including their history in Illinois and the Midwest, beginning during the 2022-23 school year.

State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, a Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said she didn’t learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act or her grandparents’ struggles with discrimination and the fear of deportation until she was in law school.

“My family’s story, or at least what I knew of it until law school, was the fairy tale version of the quintessential American immigrant story, one that paints a picture of success, achievement, and belonging,” she said. “It’s all true, except that it’s not the whole story.”

Teaching about that history, along with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the contributions people of Asian descent have made to American history and culture, will lead to greater understanding, both for fellow Asian Americans and for others, Gong-Gershowitz said.

That is particularly important in the face of anti-Asian sentiments and violence, she said. “Empathy comes from understanding, and we cannot do better unless we know better.”

The state board of education will provide guidance, but it will be up to districts to determine the specifics of what is taught and how much instructional time should be devoted to the subject.

The law is the latest in a series of new requirements Gov. J.B. Pritzker has signed that aim to make the teaching of history in Illinois schools more inclusive. Earlier this year, the Democrat signed a measure that expands requirements for teaching Black history in public schools. And in 2019, he signed into law a bill that required schools this year to begin teaching about the contributions of LGBTQ people.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor; Eesha Pendharkar, Staff Writer; Tribune News Service; and Madeline Will, Senior Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the August 18, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed


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