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NM students face learning loss

Ben Ippel, a fourth grade teacher at Governor Bent Elementary School, teaches students remotely in his empty classroom. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Learning loss from school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be greater than initial projections, continuing to widen academic gaps for New Mexico students.

“Low-income and minority students could suffer the greatest learning losses,” Ryan Tolman, program evaluator for the Legislative Finance Committee, said during a Wednesday presentation. “This is also likely to affect achievement in math by younger students more.”

A new legislative report says remote learning in spring 2020 could cost students between four months to over a year of learning for the state’s elementary and middle school students, citing state-specific research from Stanford University. In June, the LFC released a report that projected school closures could result in students losing three months to a year’s worth of learning.

On top of that, a separate national report suggests that if remote learning continues until January, there could be three to 14 more months of academic loss for these grades.

Ben Ippel, fourth grade teacher at Governor Bent Elementary School, works online while his students learn from a distance. Distance learning across New Mexico was called an “inadequate substitute” for in-person education by legislative researchers. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“While these are only projections, we hope that they serve as an alarm to educators and policymakers,” Tolman said.

The state Public Education Department’s statement to the Journal didn’t say whether they agree with the projections.

“While PED acknowledges that students missed out on critical in-person instruction and learning, we simply don’t have the data to quantify learning loss in this manner,” the statement said.

According to PED, 41 districts and 13 charter schools are doing a hybrid of remote and in-person instruction; 39 districts and 56 charters are doing remote instruction with small groups for younger students or students in special education; and nine school districts and 27 charters are in fully remote learning.

The LFC report says that 84% of K-5 students could have returned to school for some in-person learning this fall but that fewer than half were given that option by districts.

And students in schools that have a high number of low-income families are more likely to be getting remote instruction, according to the report.

While remote learning has improved since earlier this year, it’s still an inadequate substitute for in-person learning, according to the LFC report.

“Teachers who responded to a fall LFC survey reported being unable to reach 1 in 5 students, with 40% not consistently completing offline assignments,” the analysis said.

In March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration called for schools to close, ultimately for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year, to help stop the spread of coronavirus. In early September, some schools were allowed to have elementary students on campus in a hybrid model.

New Mexico is one of seven states that have orders keeping schools partly closed, the report says.

The report says the state needs a “complete and transparent road map” for K-12 school reentry. After all, the report says, evidence is showing that schools can reopen without becoming significant sources of COVID-19 if there are low community transmission rates and mitigation requirements, such as masks.

“Controlling the virus to levels that make it possible for more students to return to school should be a central project for the state and its citizens going forward,” the report says.

The report says assessments are crucial to see where students are academically at this time.

“The need for assessments is also the same reason why we ramp up COVID testing during a global health crisis. Just like we want to catch everyone who might be sick and refer them to the appropriate medical treatment, we also want to catch kids who might be really behind because of all this and provide the necessary support,” Tolman said.

LFC researchers said that the testing data needed to better measure students’ learning during the pandemic is not available statewide and that the state needs a plan to address this. Schools didn’t have to do end-of-the-year testing last school year, and beginning-of-the-year assessments this fall were largely optional.

“While the Public Education Department has issued valuable guidance to districts on using assessments to identify and address students’ needs, the lack of a consistent strategy across districts or mandatory reporting to the state means policymakers still lack a clear picture of the extent of the problem,” the LFC report says.

PED said that many districts requested flexibility on testing.

PED officials, who also presented to the LFC, pointed to the department’s efforts during the pandemic, including investing in internet, creating guides for schools and providing remote teaching training. The department also noted that Engage New Mexico, a program for students who aren’t doing their remote learning work, is helping thousands of children.

The LFC report shows that there have been improvements in access to the internet and technological devices but that not everyone is covered.

“A Public Schools Facilities Authority survey in September indicated that approximately 6% of students were still without home internet and 5% lacked a digital device. This is an improvement since the spring, but still represents 16,000 to 19,000 students,” the LFC report said.

The report also says middle and high school students are failing their classes at high rates. National data also suggests school closures could increase high school dropout rates.

The report suggested a universal longer school year to make up the loss. Elementary schools could add 25 days through the K-5 Plus program, and middle and high schools could lengthen the school year by 10 days with the Extended Learning Time program. The report suggests both state-funded programs, which are tied to research-backed academic benefits, could be flexible on when to add the extra days to the calendar.

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