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Student Achievement Opinion

The Idea of ‘Learning Loss’ Begs Us to Ask, ‘Loss From What?’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 04, 2021 | Corrected: February 04, 2021 6 min read
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Corrected: The original version of this post incorrectly stated the nature of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. It has been corrected to reflect that it is a norm-referenced test.

(This is the second post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

There’s a lot of talk about students suffering “learning loss” because of the pandemic—what does that mean and how concerned should we be?

Boston educator Neema Avashiaand her studentsshared their reflections in Part One.

Today, Georgia teacher Marian Dingle “wraps up” this two-part series.

Marian Dingle is a veteran elementary educator in Georgia. She is passionate about mathematics and justice and advocates for educators, students, and families:

‘The quantification of learning’


At the risk of aging myself, I first learned of the quantification of learning with the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a norm-referenced test, over 20 years ago. Predating No Child Left Behind, students took this test every year, and scores were reported in “grade equivalents” or GEs. A school year was reduced to 10 months, so each month was a tenth of a school year and a month of learning. A “typical” student at the beginning of their 2nd grade year was at 2.0.

If satisfactory progress was made, when the student tested again a year later, the student would be at 3.0. Teachers were judged by this standard and received both accolades and reprimands because of these numbers. Reputations were based on which teachers could average a 1.5 in “growth” or gain of their students. Those who were not able to consistently produce them, and thus, earned “losses” were often placed on improvement plans.

As a beginning teacher, it was hard not to internalize this culture of competition. Students were also aware of their scores and gains, as these were used for eligibility into gifted and enrichment programs. A few years after this came the statewide standards-based test, which, in our state, also determined promotion to the next grade. Teachers were now judged, and learning was now measured, differently, but the terms of gain and loss have not left department and staff meetings. The internalization of gain and loss affects both teachers and students.

The Problem

It is really convenient that there are 10 months in a school year and that we use the base 10 system. However, any observer of children, whether it is a pediatrician, a parent, or a child-care worker, can tell you that learning is not linear. There has never been a good reason to expect that it is. Teaching and learning are both art and science; no one knows exactly how and why the light bulb illuminates when it does. Teaching is an act of faith. Sometimes the benefits of a teacher don’t manifest until years later. Neither teacher nor student should be punished for that.

Despite the spirit of not leaving a single child behind, there was a light shone that many had been. Test scores were racialized, and the inequities were obvious. Many explanations were offered, and there was no short cut of remedies. The test-prep industry boomed, marketing their solutions to districts hungry for solutions. Unfortunately, many of the solutions centered around deficit frameworks for marginalized students, ignoring the culturally relevant pedagogy of Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings and many others. Districts purchased different programs and resources and engaged in training their staff. Yet, most did not produce the desired result: the end of predictable performance outcomes based on race.

Enter the Pandemic

The introduction of widespread remote learning was, of course, a shock. It was necessary to preserve life and buy us time as we acquired scientific knowledge. The education system was forced to learn how to continue with learning in real time. For many of us, summer could not come too soon. Feeling like a first-year teacher again (a pretty horrific state for those of you who have not taught) had taken its toll. We were relieved that we had made it and done our part.

However, the exposure to racial trauma meant that none of us got a rest. It was inescapable, especially for those who were in targeted groups. Even the youngest children, I believe, were affected by it. Before the new school year had even begun, those involved in teaching and learning, students and teachers, had to wonder if school would be a safe place for them in the fall.


For some, it was. Dr. Bettina Love and others have written about how Black parents have noticed a renewed interest in school by their children. They feel freer to discover their true selves, free of spirit-murdering practices. Many of my teaching colleagues around the country are reporting the samean actual increase in academic performance:

The time on screen is now free of microaggressions and more humane.

Many students, not just Black ones, are being taught by teachers who involve families in new ways, finding a new freedom they did not have before, in both remote and hybrid situations.

To insist that our students have suffered learning loss begs us to ask:

Loss from what?

Loss for whom?

Who is gaining now?

What if the loss is a loss in inflicting harm?

Many have suggested that this pandemic offers an opportunity to create a new vision of education. I want one that has no use for terms like “loss” or “gain.” Learning just is. It happens when it happens through the intentional co-construction of a community built on respect, love, and humanity. On screen or in person.


Thanks to Marian for her contribution!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones won’t be available until February). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first nine years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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