One class but very different students: why it’s harder for kids to catch up now

The impact of the pandemic on children has been so uneven that many American classrooms now have a wider range of student ability, with more students falling well below grade level, according to new data from test. This has made the job of teachers more difficult and put the prospect of a return to school even further out of reach for many students.

While classrooms have always had a mix of students, with some above grade level and some below, research from the NWEA – a testing organization that analyzed math and reading given to 8.3 million students in grades three to eight over the past three years – shows that the pandemic has exacerbated these differences.

It means the “hard, crazy work” teachers had before the pandemic has only gotten worse, making it less likely that children will receive enough support to succeed, said Karyn Lewis, director of the Center for NWEA’s School and Student Progress, which analyzed the results of the organization’s MAP Growth assessments.

“We’re probably not doing a good job of supporting our exceptional kids and getting them to meet their needs,” Lewis said in reference to students who are above grade level. “But I think the biggest concern is, of course, for the students who, if we take a triage approach here, these kids who are way below grade level. They may be in a classroom with a teacher who is simply not equipped to help meet those needs.

The concern is even greater in schools with high concentrations of poor, black or Latino students, where children have fallen further behind during the pandemic and have more ground to catch up.

Students have also changed in other ways, teachers say, with some grieving relatives dying of Covid-19 and many showing social and emotional immaturity after spending months or years in online classes instead of interacting. with their peers in person. Many schools have reported more student behavior problems as a result.

The wide variation among students identified by the NWEA in its analysis has only intensified the challenge of ensuring that all children progress, teachers say.

“This has been the toughest year of my teaching career,” said Amber McCoy, 48, a fourth-grade teacher at Kellogg Elementary School in Huntington, West Virginia, who has been in the classroom for 20 years. . “They want us to go back to school as normal but it’s almost impossible.”

Amber McCoy, a fourth-grade teacher, said it was “almost impossible” for schools to get back to normal so soon after the pandemic. Courtesy of Amber McCoy

Some of his students had actively participated in classes the previous year, when teaching was hybrid – mainly those with more support at home – which left them in a very different place from their peers who moved away when the courses were online.

“The students who remained engaged were ready to go,” she said, but many students showed up last fall with academic and emotional needs that teachers had to diagnose and figure out how to meet.

“All of these things just account for the growing gap between the kids who are doing well, have always been well and will continue to be well, and those kids who were hanging on and are now falling behind.”

The NWEA analysis of student variation was based on the MAP Growth assessments, which are administered two to three times a year in more than 24,000 schools, or about a quarter of elementary and middle schools nationwide.

The study found that students in grades three through eight had a greater dispersion in achievement levels this spring compared to spring 2019. In reading, the dispersion in student achievement levels was 4-8% greater. wider than before the pandemic, Lewis said. The differences were even more pronounced in math, especially in grades three to five, where the range of student scores was 5 to 10 percent wider than three years ago. Most of the new variations were linked to more students falling behind their peers than in the past, she said.

At Greensburg Salem Middle School in Pennsylvania, that meant that before the pandemic teachers might have divided students into three or four ability groups for a math class, last year they needed six or eight ability groups. abilities, said Shawna Burger, 40, a math specialist who supports teachers at the school.

When Burger shared test data with teachers last fall showing the wide variation among their students, they were alarmed.

“Panic ensued,” she said, recalling the teachers throwing up their arms and saying “there’s no way I could do this!”

She advised math teachers at her school to adopt new teaching methods. The old “stand and deliver” method where teachers lecture in front of the class, usually playing students in the middle of the class’s ability range, had been discouraged by teaching experts even before the pandemic. This approach excludes students who have academic difficulties and those who need more challenges.

Picture: Shawna Burger
“We can’t hope to solve this problem in a year,” said college math specialist Shawna Burger. Courtesy of Shawna Burger

Now, Burger said, with an even wider range of needs in the classroom, teaching from the front of the room is even less effective. Teachers should divide students into small groups, she said, putting some on computers and pairing others with their peers so they can work independently while teachers and assistants move around. in the classroom, spending time with each student or group.

Burger hopes this approach will lead to better teaching in the future — potentially a lasting positive legacy from the pandemic — but, for now, she said, her school is still catching up.

“We can’t hope to solve this problem in a year,” she said.

Earlier in the pandemic, NWEA’s analysis of test score data showed that Covid quarantines and distance learning had disproportionately affected black and Hispanic students and poor students.

Two years later, there are signs of improvement in all demographic groups. Schools with high concentrations of poor students are gaining ground at about the same rate as students in more affluent schools.

But the average student in grades three through eight is still 5 to 10 percentile points behind where students in those grades were in math three years ago. In reading, students are now 2 to 4 percentile points behind where they were three years ago.

And progress has been so slow that if improvement continues at the current rate, it could take middle school students at least five years to regain lost ground, meaning they will go to college less prepared, Lewis said.

“We’re running out of time, and if we keep improving at this rate, we’re not going to meet all of the kids’ needs,” Lewis said.

She called on schools to offer more tutoring and help teachers tailor lessons to meet the needs of individual students.

“Right now is not the time to take a one-size-fits-all approach to recovery,” Lewis said. “We need to ensure that we meet the needs of students in proportion to the magnitude of those needs and that we provide supports and interventions that take into account the ground that remains to be gained overall.

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