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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Student Achievement Opinion

What Does COVID-19 Learning Loss Actually Mean?

By Tommy Thompson — February 10, 2021 6 min read
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Educators throughout the globe are concerned about students’ learning loss as a result of the constraints the pandemic has placed on teachers and students. Interestingly, there has been limited discussion on specifically what is being lost. Exactly what knowledge and skills have been lost? In some states, there are no statewide curricula. Many school districts do not have common assessments that measure curricular attainment.

This means learning loss is different for each school district and varies even within school districts depending on how each teacher measures curricular attainment. No system exists that can accurately identify learning loss.

Fortunately, what befuddles educators as a result of this quagmire could be the very thing needed to improve the educational system. The truth is, the pandemic has simply exposed the problems that previously existed within school systems and, in many cases, amplified them. Consider the following questions and considerations for how to grow from the pandemic:

What specific knowledge and skills are learned per subject?

School districts vary on how this question is answered. Some educators will point to state or provincial standards. Others will refer to knowledge and skills reflected in standardized assessments like the SAT or MAP test, while others will refer to programs utilized such as SchoolWide. Any of the aforementioned answers lacks the specificity needed by educators and students to sufficiently identify specific knowledge and skills.

Too many people familiar with state or national standards recognize the wording of the standards are such that they leave much ambiguity. If the same standard can mean something different to many educators with advanced degrees, it behooves teams of educators to unwrap or deconstruct the standards so they have a common understanding of exactly what is expected to be learned. It also might surprise people that although assessments like the SAT are known to assess literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking, educators lack a specific blueprint of exactly how these areas are measured and to what degree.

This is the reason why many test-prep companies focus on test-taking tips and tricks rather than teaching specific content as it is a gamble as to what question items a student will find on a test and how the content will be measured. Finally, educators that rely heavily on any program are doomed. Following a program blindly is antithetical to the teaching and learning process. Effective instruction is responsive to the unique individuals in a classroom as opposed to a teaching script made for the masses. As the saying goes, “One-size-fits-all is no-size-fits-all.”

A road less traveled, but very powerful for educators and students, is to have classroom teachers work with other teachers that share the same course or grade level and together create a list of knowledge and skills they want students to learn by the close of the school year based on state standards. The team could generate a list of unambiguous statements which could also be used to represent a standards-based report card. As an educational consultant, I have facilitated this process throughout North America and can attest to its power. To assist teams in this process, I highly recommend The Teacher Clarity Playbook written by Doug Fisher et al. and Larry Ainsworth’s CFA 2.0, as they both provide excellent examples of how to gain clarity around learning outcomes for educators and students.

How do we know what knowledge and skills are learned by each student?

During the pandemic, when educators have been asked to cite learning loss, many point to a study provided by Stanford University titled “Estimates of Learning Loss in the 2019-2020 School Year,” which uses NWEA’s Measuring Academic Progress (MAP) assessments. Educators likely refer to this popular standardized test because many school districts do not have internal measures of their own to determine the knowledge and skills learned by each student.

Further, even if educators were clear on what literacy and numeracy skills were assessed on the MAP assessment, and they were aligned to the district curriculum, that assessment alone does not account for other important measures of learning like social studies, history, science, art, vocational education, and music. It is important educators don’t think, feel, or believe what has been learned but have evidence of learning.

One way educators can know what is learned is by designing unit-based common assessments. For example, all of the grade 9 science teachers collaborate to design and administer an assessment that measures what the science teachers deemed essential knowledge and skills for each unit throughout the year. In this way, the teachers share common curricular expectations and then can analyze results later as a team to be responsive to their students. Further, all the teachers would be able to identify specific skills and knowledge per course and would then be better positioned to cite evidence of learning loss or gain.

How do we know what learning has been lost?

To answer the question of learning lost, the question probably needs some clarification. Do people mean, “How much did students learn compared with students in past years in brick and mortar?” or “How much was not able to be taught due to time constraints?”

First, comparing one group of students in one year with another group of students in a past year is like comparing apples and oranges. It could be like comparing an Olympic basketball team to a high school basketball team. Different players naturally influence results.

A better way of measuring learning gains is to use a preassessment. Educators that administer an assessment before instruction are better equipped to know where students are in relation to the desired course outcomes. After a unit of instruction, the teacher will be able to pinpoint the learning gains by comparing the students’ performance on the preassessment with the postassessment. This method will help teachers understand their impact and will show student progress and achievement. Ironically, it also might not matter if something was not taught based on student data from the preassessment. For example, referring back to the basketball analogy, if a coach determined from the preassessment that the team met the standard for passing a basketball, there wouldn’t be any need to spend time teaching passing. Does that make it a loss? It was not a loss because the players already arrived knowing how to perform the skill. This is precisely why not having an opportunity to teach something is not necessarily a loss.

The other side of the coin speaks to the time available to teach the curriculum and the students’ opportunity to learn. There is no debate that teachers need adequate time to expose students to knowledge and skills reflected in the curriculum. Yet, coverage of the curriculum does not guarantee learning. Time to “cover” curriculum too often provides an illusion of learning in the absence of evidence. To be able to effectively answer the curricular-attainment question, focus on evidence of learning rather than time.

In the end, the pandemic has amplified everything in the educational world. It has revealed that many school systems did not have a common mechanism for accurately reporting learning of critical knowledge and skills reflected in the school curriculum. The pandemic has created an opportunity for educators to think about what is being learned and what is lost. Yet, the biggest learning loss will not be from students but from educators who do not learn the lessons of the pandemic and use them as opportunities to grow.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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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