Nationwide, student performance in math, science, reading and writing saw a sharp decline through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oregon schools were no exception, with achievement scores last school year dropping at every grade and subject tested — some as much as 10 percentage points.
According to the latest data, which reflects the 2021-22 school year, fewer than 44% of Oregon students tested were proficient in English language arts. About 30% were considered proficient in math and 29.5% in science.
By comparison, in 2019, about 53% of Oregon students tested proficient in English, 39% in math and 37% in science.
School districts across Oregon are working to get students back on track. But there seems to be no consensus on what, if anything, needs to change in current teaching practices to assure a uniquely impacted generation of students gets help catching up.
Education experts say the solution is not one-size-fits-all and will take time.
“We’re working with children with human brains and it’s not like we are not in a factory where we press buttons,” Gweneth Bruey Fink, director of secondary curriculum and instruction for Salem-Keizer Public Schools, said. “That is what I personally feel is the largest misconception about how the public education system works. We take students wherever they are, and we help move them along on their own individual trajectories.”
Some educators said they are optimistic that, now that students are back in classrooms full time, the numbers will rebound. Federal and state officials have provided billions of additional dollars to help make that happen.
Every district — and to some extent every teacher — appears to be tackling the issue in their own way. Some are investing in special tutors and new curricula, or using the funding to lower class sizes. Some teachers are continuing instruction as they always have, while others are taking time in the moment to try new lessons.
For example, administrator Jill Robinson-Wolgamott said that the Bethel School District in Eugene is not relying on annual testing but is checking in often to see where students are and tweaking teaching methods in real time.
“I believe that this work is not just about our kids today, but it’s about our kids for tomorrow,” she said.
The state anticipated many students had been stunted by the remote learning period and the overall impact of COVID-19.
Dan Farley, Oregon Department of Education’s director of assessment, said those who were already below proficiency saw a steeper decline in their test scores.
Individual school districts saw performance results decline statewide.
Salem-Keizer Public Schools saw a 13.2 percentage point decrease in English language arts proficiency from 2019 to 2022. Their proficiency dropped by 12.1 percentage points in math.
By the numbers: Oregon student assessment results see sharp declines following pandemic
Similarly, Eugene-Springfield metro school districts saw scores plummet post-pandemic with significantly fewer students in 2022 testing proficient in English language arts than in 2019.
Eugene School District 4J had a 9.4 percentage point decrease from 2019 English proficiency results. The district had an 8.8 percentage point dip for math.
For Springfield Public Schools, proficiency in English language arts dropped by 12.6 percentage points from 2019’s results. In math, it fell 8.7 percentage points.
Bethel School District students were found to have a 12.5 percentage point decrease in English language arts proficiency from 2019 to 2022. Their proficiency dropped by 10.6 percentage points in math.
Schools have received state and federal funding to support staff as they work to address pandemic learning loss.
In March 2020, Congress set aside approximately $13.2 billion to “address student needs arising from the coronavirus pandemic and/or to emerge stronger post‐pandemic, which may include reopening schools safely, sustaining their safe operation, and addressing students’ social, emotional, and mental health,” according to Salem-Keizer Public School documents.
Salem-Keizer’s total allocation, according to records, was about $97,825,660 over three years. Of that, $45,397,986 was listed as going specifically toward addressing learning loss.
In year one, $6,886,328 was allocated for 54 full-time equivalent positions to reduce class sizes in grades K-2, grades considered vital to students becoming proficient readers.
Eugene 4J received $36 million in ESSER III funds, with the biggest expenditures going toward after school and summer school programs, student technology, additional staffing and building improvements. The district planned to use $18 million to address learning loss.
According to Bethel School District’s elementary director of teaching and learning Robinson-Wolgamott, who goes by RW, the district has been aware of a large portion of students performing below the benchmark.
However, she said, the pandemic and post-pandemic assessments shone a spotlight on the gaps in literacy performance and gave administrators renewed drive in trying new strategies.
“I felt really strongly that our district needed a north star,” RW said. “The curriculum that we were going to put in front of kids and with our teachers needed to reflect that new north star, so that’s where the focus of the science of reading came into play in Bethel.”
RW said the new reading program puts an emphasis on data and science. She said the science of reading has two main components: word recognition and language comprehension.
RW said the LETRS training has been a “game changer.” She immediately knew she wanted all of Bethel teachers to take it.
By the end of the school year, 182 Bethel staff will have completed the LETRS training. Teachers in elementary school are currently undergoing the training, which takes about 60 hours to complete, but RW said most educators are taking much longer with it. RW said the teachers are being paid for this extra time.
Along with the science of reading, RW has assigned literacy coaches to guide teachers and present individual lessons to students. There are currently four literacy coaches at Bethel, all of whom started this school year.
RW said these literacy coaches were already leaders within the district for English language arts.
“A curriculum does not teach our kids how to read, our teachers do,” RW said.
Echo Groff, a literacy coach who has been a classroom teacher and reading specialist at Bethel for 17 years, took the new LETRS training to prepare for her new role.
“How your brain reads is a science, it’s not a mystery,” Groff said. “There are a lot of misunderstandings around how your brain does and doesn’t learn to read.”
“As a person who’s been in education for 21 years, I can tell you, by far, this is the most powerful professional development that I have ever taken,” RW said.
Although Bethel is currently training its primary grade instructors, the district is putting an emphasis on literacy in all grade levels.
RW pointed to the “third grade benchmark,” which is often used as a measure to determine literacy progress. She said while that is still a good indicator, students at all grade levels are struggling with proficiency.
She said collecting and evaluating district data has been key in helping form interventions.
“For the first time this year, we do have a middle school reading intervention that is targeted to students who are showing us that they need a very specific level of intervention for reading,” RW said. “We’re seeing tremendous growth using an evidence-based research reading program.”
In December, Groff taught a guest lecture on how to sound words out at the middle school level for a sixth grade class at Meadow View School. The lesson focused on prefixes, suffixes and root words.
Although these may seem basic for literate adults, these specialized lessons are key in teaching students how to read.
Bruey Frink and Teresa Tolento are in charge of curriculum for Salem-Keizer Public Schools.
Bruey Fink, who oversees the curriculum for middle and high schools, said they monitor key performance indicators throughout the year to see how students are doing.
She said teachers at the secondary level who all teach the same class may meet to talk about how kids are doing on their summative assessments, such as a unit test or quiz, or on a specific lesson. Some meetings involve a grade-level team looking at their performance in multiple content areas.
“When you’re in our positions, meaning the positions of any educator, I think you are used to a culture of taking students exactly where they are and helping them move forward from there while exposing them to the grade level standards of where they’re supposed to be,” Bruey Fink said. “On a certain level for us anyway, it’s business as usual, because we’re still doing that. It’s just that the number of students and the depth of intervention that we need to do (is) more significant than in the past.”
She said the pressure to aid those students is comparable to past years, but the intensity of student needs has increased.
However, when students are falling behind, it’s important to keep moving forward, according to Bruey Fink and Telento. If a student in ninth grade is performing below a fifth grade level, retroactively starting them at a fifth grade level won’t get them where they need to be, they said.
“It’s better to go slower and deeper and keep kids in their grade level,” Tolento said.
Bruey Fink said maintaining grade level expectations while offering additional support from instructors and peers will help get them on track.
“They might start with that (fifth-grade) level of skill, but they’re always exposed to where they need to get to,” she said. “Students actually fill that pretty quickly.”
Walker Middle School’s Summer Math Bridge reflects that, although at an accelerated level.
Each spring, seventh grade accelerated math teacher Karen Rumrill and the other math teachers at Walker recommend students who are not currently in an accelerated math class for the summer program.
They also consider students who are currently in an accelerated math class and who would benefit from additional math support.
“After attending Summer Math Bridge, students had a higher level of confidence in their math abilities and are willing to engage in higher-level thinking and learning with their peers,” Rumrill said.
During one of her math classes in November, students huddled around a pink worksheet filled with terms, placing purple cards with definitions and blue cards with equations and examples on the corresponding word.
They went over the definitions together in the end — from “equation” and “formula” to “reciprocal” and “co-efficient” — with Rumrill asking how the students each approached the task.
In the same class, Rumrill instructed students to walk around to multi-colored sheets hung on the walls. It was their choice which ones to work on.
She said having a choice in which problems to work on and a “think partner” to work with increases engagement as well as academic discourse.
“I find that when students work with partners (or) small groups, they are more willing to try the more difficult problems,” she said.
Through these activities, Rumrill is also able to observe students and gather data on what kinds of problems they are solving, where they are successful and where they might need additional support.
“Getting caught up is a process that takes time. The process and timeline look different for each student,” Rumrill said.
Accelerated learning can mean more than one thing.
In an accelerated class like the one at Walker Middle School, students move at a faster pace and are able to address missed skills in mini-lessons, warm-ups and other activities.
But it can also be a style of learning that catches students up.
Teachers at one elementary school in Washington state described it to nonprofit news outlet The Hechinger Report as promoting kids to grade-level material with extra support, such as a preprinted multiplication table to help them follow along in class, while also asking teachers to find time to do catch-up review when breaking the class into small groups.
A May 2021 report by nonprofit online math provider Zearn found that students learned more math during the 2020-21 school year when truncated review material was woven into grade-level lessons than when they were retaught many of the previous year’s lessons, as reported by The Hechinger Report.
“It is important to have a variety of strategies to best suit the needs of all individual students,” Rumrill said.
These strategies vary by school and state but include things like tutoring, remedial classes, after-school programs and summer boot camps.
Rumrill said she uses things such as classroom observations, group discussions, formative assessments, surveys, student input and district assessments to gauge her students’ needs and adjust her teaching. She also said her school, Walker Middle, offers separate math support classes for students who are significantly below grade level.
“I think a common misunderstanding about catching kids up is that all students need to be ‘caught up’ on the same skills and that the skills they may have missed have to be taught before they can move onto grade-level content,” she said.
Kelly Colvin Smith, who has kids in second and fifth grade at Edison Elementary in Eugene 4J, said she’s seen a shift to focus on “holistic” learning by including social-emotional learning in the classroom and allowing teachers time to check in with students’ mental well-being.
She has noticed an increase in communication, which Colvin Smith has appreciated.
“The teachers are really going above and beyond trying to be in touch with parents,” Colvin Smith said.
Although her kids are mostly on track for their grade levels now, Colvin Smith reflected on her daughter’s reading.
Her daughter, now in the second grade, attended preschool in person, but the pandemic moved her kindergarten instruction online. Colvin Smith has noticed her daughter − although on par with the rest of her class − is not at the same place in reading as her older brother was when he was in second grade.
“I don’t want to say learning loss… but I do question, was she a little bit behind with her reading ability because of the pandemic?” Colvin Smith said. “I don’t know, because she was also behind him learning to talk.”
Colvin Smith said she’s conscious that all students learn at different paces, but the thought of whether her daughter is “on track” has crossed her mind.
Laura Bodner, who has two children at Willagillespie Elementary in 4J, said she was fortunate to have ample time to stay at home with her kids and keep them on track during online learning.
She said she monitored their classes and work, took them on hikes and kept them reading during isolation. Bodner acknowledged that many families with young children did not have a parent who could be home full time.
She said her kids have been able to stay on grade level with their learning, but many of her children’s classmates have not.
“They just need a little time,” Bodner said about students who have fallen behind during the pandemic.
Bodner said she trusts her children’s school and the experts there.
She hopes remote schooling, learning loss and everything else that has come with the COVID-19 pandemic will make this generation of students more resilient in the long run.
Natalie Pate covered education for the Statesman Journal. Follow her on Twitter @NataliePateGwin.
Miranda Cyr reports on education for The Register-Guard. You can contact her at [email protected] or find her on Twitter @mirandabcyr.