When schools abruptly closed in the spring and teachers and students had to quickly switch to remote learning, students missed out on learning essential concepts and skills needed for the next grade level. Local and state educators agree.
Students could return this fall with a learning loss of 30 percent in reading and more than 50 percent in math as a result of the COVID-19-related school closures - nearly a full year behind in math for some grades, according to a Northwest Evaluation Association study.
Teachers are now faced with the challenge of focusing on grade-level material while tending to learning gaps in knowledge needed to master new content.
In May, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education formed the Task Force for Learning Acceleration, made up of 115 Missouri educators, to create recommendations and tools to address learning loss.
"This is a diverse group of educational leaders from all around Missouri, people who serve in different roles and positions in school districts and people who have different points of view," said Blaine Henningsen, assistant commissioner for DESE's Office of College and Career Readiness.
The task force contained three work groups: "Assessing Learning Loss," "Acceleration of Learning" and "Reaching All Students."
"Our goal was to provide a collaborative platform for idea sharing, a safe place for brainstorming and the development of innovative solutions that could be shared across the state," Henningsen said.
The task force created a collection of more than 80 recommendations and resources designed to help guide instructional planning in the return to school.
The first step to addressing learning loss is understanding what learning gaps are present, so the task force recommends assessing students to determine how much learning was lost for each student.
It recommends educators use "multiple, ongoing formative assessment and feedback cycles to monitor mastery of needed prerequisite skills, as well as the application of this background to new learning," according to the task force's "acceleration of learning" document.
Henningsen said districts must assess students to determine the skills and concepts each student must learn before learning new material. Building leaders should have this information so they can create school schedules to best meet learning needs support individuals and small groups of students and organize this information in their district.
"We want to be able to identify places that might need additional structures and supports and services from DESE's perspective to help them get up to speed," Henningsen said. "It's really important that we know where they are, especially special needs students."
The task force cautioned against testing students during the first few days of school and recommended educators focus on tending to the social-emotional needs of students and educators during the first two weeks.
The task force placed high priority on the social and emotional needs of students and staff, recommending educators and staff members be sensitive to the impact of trauma, remain flexible and recognize that school districts will need to provide vulnerable students with more assistance than other students.
Students with better internet access and devices, higher levels of parental education, more time for parental engagement, and better access to books and materials benefit more from distance learning, and learning opportunities are strongly determined by quality education in younger children, according to the Center for Global Development.
"We realize that our educators have to help students and staff members process their loss and fear while simultaneously facing the possibility that equity and opportunity gaps are wider than ever before," Henningsen said.
He said he and his colleagues discussed the challenges this school year might present knowing some students and staff would be returning to school after experiencing personal trauma.
"We knew that even before the pandemic struck, an alarming number of students experienced some kind of trauma, whether it be hunger, domestic violence, divorce, transiency, homelessness, etc., in their lives, and we were concerned that the inequities that existed before COVID could possibly be exacerbated due to the crisis," he said.
The task force recommended creating intentional strategies to meet the needs of these vulnerable students.
"Even though this impact can be experienced by many students, it's particularly true for those at risk and vulnerable students who may already have been suffering from trauma before the pandemic," said Lisa Sireno, the standards and assessment administrator for DESE's Office of College and Career Readiness.
The task force determined educators will need help adjusting curriculum and delivery methods, and it recommended school districts structure those changes with a primary focus on the social and emotional needs of students, especially at-risk students who are likely further behind.
"They also emphasize that school districts should not deny educational opportunities just to some students just because all students won't be able to participate," Sireno said. "Their intent was not to hold students back while others catch up, but to allow all to progress."
DESE has created and compiled social-emotional and academic learning resources for educators, students and parents, such as social and emotional development lesson plans.
Acceleration of learning
The task force recommends using grade-appropriate standards and focusing on addressing individual learning gaps to accelerate learning. Acceleration of learning means teaching students grade-level and course-level content while providing scaffolding to address learning gaps students didn't learn in the previous year, Sireno said. These gaps will be different for each student. It also recommends having consistent communication between educators, students and parents about the instruction.
Instead of trying to teach students all unmastered learning standards from the spring at the beginning of the coming school year, the task force recommends using assessments to "gather data on prerequisite learning needed to master grade-level content, shortly before the new grade-level material is introduced," to provide the most relevant information to students.
"Instead of sending students backward to fill in all the potential gaps in their learning, leaders and teachers should focus on filling in only the most critical gaps - and not in isolation, but at the moment they're needed," the document states.
This will accelerate student learning by removing learning barriers before they get in the way, it states.
The task force created five key pieces to accelerated learning:
- Generate thinking, purpose, relevance and curiosity.
- Clearly articulate the learning goal and expectations.
- Scaffold and practice essential prerequisite skills. In education, "scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process," according to the Glossary of Education Reform.
- Dig into the new concept, introduce new vocabulary and review prior vocabulary.
- Conduct formative assessments frequently.
The task force recommends prioritizing skills and knowledge that are essential for success in life, cut across content area boundaries and are necessary for success in the next content area.
"It doesn't mean that the remainder of the standards or the remainder of the content isn't taught, but it gives us some place to focus and a place to begin, especially when we've got turbulent times and lots of uncertainty going on," Sireno said.
The task force said implementing priority standards is best at the local level because districts need to consider the instructional needs of their students.
The participating districts in the task force provided their own priority standards, and DESE is developing priority standards documents for districts to use that are aligned to the Missouri Learning Standards.
The task force recommended DESE foster continued collaboration on acceleration of learning, so DESE established an ongoing learning acceleration collaborative group to work on key topics in small teams and meet monthly as a large group.
Acceleration of learning resources
The task force recommended DESE provide assessment tools to districts, so DESE created Missouri Learning, Engagement and Preparation (MO LEAP), a set of resources created to support Missouri schools this fall and provide classroom instruction and learning measurements for teachers to address learning gaps.
MO LEAP includes assessments and "blocks" for districts to use if they choose to. They're built with Missouri's performance expectations in mind and are aligned to the priority standards created by DESE.
MO LEAP assessments can be used to evaluate skills and concepts that are essential for students to have learned in the spring to be prepared for the fall. To measure the readiness for the current year, MO LEAP assessments "look back" at the previous year's expectations, according to DESE.
"The assessments are designed to help teachers understand the progress that students have made and where they are when they come back to school," Sireno said.
MO LEAP assessments are available for students in fourth grade and above. The testing window for grades 4-9 is Aug. 24 through Oct. 9, and the testing window for high school students is Aug. 31 through Sept. 25.
Assessment results are available within a week of testing with most of the information. High-level summary information will be available after that. It provides student-specific information that can help with immediate decision making and implementation of curriculum, Sireno said.
The blocks are grade-level and content-specific instructional resources created by and for teachers to support acceleration of learning. The content in the blocks focuses on problem solving and application of skills, not on memorization of facts, according to DESE.
The blocks are designed to be used flexibly by teachers and woven into curricula as needed. Three to six blocks for each content area are planned for each grade level, and districts can choose which ones they wish to download and use, according to DESE.
"They've got diverse and complex texts in them aligned to grade-level standards," Sireno said. "A MO LEAP block can be used as a whole, in parts or integrated separately into instruction."
The blocks will commonly be the foundation of a series of lessons within a unit, and they can include book excerpts, images, videos, data and tables as well as accompanying tasks and thought problems for students.
DESE's website shows an example of a third-grade science block that includes images, videos and text about what oil spills are and how scientists collect the oil and remove it from the ocean using a black powder. Students are then asked to demonstrate understanding, such as by predicting and explaining what they think would happen if the scientist did the experiment without the black powder.
"We've implemented an earlier version of the blocks in social studies over the last couple years, and we've had really an enthusiastic response from the teachers who participated," Sireno said.
DESE is developing math, science and English language arts blocks, and the first wave of these blocks will be available in the next three weeks, Sireno said.
To view the full recommendations and resources, visit dese.mo.gov and click "Task Force for Learning Acceleration" on the "COVID-19 Updates" page.