No one was arguing last year that virtual learning was a good substitute for in-person instruction in K-12 schools.
The inferiority of virtual learning was underscored recently when Mississippi released the results of the first state tests administered during the pandemic.
It’s a ton of numbers to digest, and in some cases they defy clear patterns. But when this past year’s results are compared to those from 2019, which was the last time the tests were given, a few observations seem clear:
- Student performance went down significantly, especially in math.
- All children suffered from the disruptions of COVID-19, but those who spent the least time in a physical classroom probably suffered the most.
- As with non-pandemic years, the test results were heavily dependent on the quality of the instruction for the eight months leading up to the test.
That last point was amply illustrated in the Greenwood Leflore and Carroll County districts.
In eighth grade in the Greenwood Leflore district, for example, 45% of students failed the English portion of the test. Nearly twice as many of these same eighth graders, 85%, failed the math section.
In Carroll County, which tried to stick with in-person learning for the majority of the year, a couple of grades actually performed better this year than in 2019. But some did so much worse one has to wonder what if any instruction occurred. In 2019, 22.9% of third graders in that district failed the math test. This year, it ballooned to 85.2%.
A lot of the academic regression was predictable, and it raises the question of whether — at least for the students — the biggest risk from the coronavirus was not to their bodies but to their brains.
Parents and some educators were both expressing their worries last year that this country, despite the billions of dollars it was spending on distance learning, was not getting its money’s worth.
Teaching young children was almost impossible, and lots of older children didn’t even try. Plenty of families wrote the year off, and it appears so did some schools.
Certainly there were plenty of heroic efforts to muddle through unprecedented circumstances, but you cannot look at those test results and say unequivocally that everyone — students, parents and teachers — gave last year their best shot. If they had, the dropoff should have been roughly the same between districts and between grades. Instead, there were major variations, ranging between modest declines to gargantuan ones.
Those who have argued that we don’t want to repeat that experience, no matter how many waves of the coronavirus this nation endures, may be on point. You can’t go many years with four out of five children unable to do math at grade level before the damage to them and to their community is irreparable.
But these same voices in favor of keeping schools open no matter what oppose a course of action that would make their insistence a safer option: mandating vaccines for teachers and staff, and even for students of eligible age.
There is a possibility, of course, that the low test scores also were driven by a lessened motivation to do well on the exams.
Going into the tests, teachers and administrators both knew that low scores would not be held against them this year. The tests were only used to gauge learning loss, not to determine the accountability grade that schools and districts received. No matter how poorly a school did, it was assured that it would keep the same grade it had had for the previous two years. That might have been the fairest policy, but it also reduced the incentive to do well on the exams.
Even though the tests were administered only to those in K-12, the results also may carry a warning for higher education.
Universities have been pushing online learning for some years, but they really gravitated toward that less expensive method of instruction with the arrival of COVID-19.
The theory has been that as students get older, they develop the self-discipline to master what teachers are imparting just as well through emails and videoconferences as they do sitting in the same room with other students and their instructor.
Mississippi’s test scores don’t support that theory. With many schools doing virtual learning for at least part of last year, the failure rate on the English test for high schoolers averaged 39.1%. Not any grade level from third through eighth posted that high of a failure rate in English.
It really doesn’t matter whether it’s kindergarten or college. There is nothing that has been devised so far that’s superior academically to having the student and the teacher in the same room.
- Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or email@example.com.