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Locked out and left behind

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — A new study underscores what has become increasingly clear across America: Districts that locked their classroom doors during the pandemic have done a grave disservice to students, particularly black and low-income students.

“Counting the Cost: Wisconsin School Closures and Student Proficiency,” from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), finds Wisconsin schools that closed for in-person learning to start the 2020-21 school year saw significant performance declines in math and English. The closures, impacting more than 250,000 students (30 percent of all students in the state), highlight the growing body of evidence that school closures hurt the academic performance of students who can least afford setbacks in education.

“Evidence is piling up that the decision to close schools for in-person learning was a disastrous mistake with long-term consequences,” said WILL Research Director Will Flanders. “As we count the cost, we should be mindful to employ policy solutions that will help these students recover and keep schools open.”

Flanders and Miranda Spindt reviewed school closure decisions in the 2020-21 school year and ran an analysis to see their impact on recent Forward Exam data. The findings point to significant learning loss for students in districts that chose virtual learning over a hybrid or in-person experience.

Districts that remained closed for in-person learning and instead operated virtual education systems, posted math proficiency rates that were approximately 4.8 percent lower. English/Language Arts proficiency was 1.6 percent lower.

The report also found:

  • Districts with a higher percentage of African American students were more likely to remain closed in fall 2020. The results show that the higher the percentage of African American students in a district, the more likely that district was to remain shut down for in-person learning.
  • Districts with a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students saw larger performance declines. A district with 100% low-income students would be expected to have proficiency declines of more than 6% in math and 7% in ELA relative to a school with no low-income students independent of closure status.
  • Wisconsin had a learning crisis before the pandemic and the future of Wisconsin students is at stake. Pre-pandemic, nearly 60% of Wisconsin students couldn’t read or write at grade level. With the addition of school closures and student learning loss, this is the biggest crisis facing the Badger state’s future.

School district were forced to close in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic took hold, “with little data available to inform costs and benefits,” WILL’s study asserts. The Evers administration ordered all schools go to a virtual model.

“But, as more information came to light that COVID-19 was a low-risk proposition for most kids, there was a growing variation in whether schools reopened or not during the 2020-2021 school year. Reopening decisions became less driven by sound policy and science, and more by local politics,” the report notes.

Because much of the testing around the nation stalled during the opening year-plus of the pandemic, it has been difficult to quantify how far behind students have fallen and how much ground they’ll have to make up. One study projected that proficiency would fall, with students only making about two-thirds of a typical school year’s gains in math and 37-50% of their typical gains in reading.

On average, Wisconsin districts had their lowest average proficiency on the Forward Exam in its history in 2020-21, falling below 40 percent for the first time, according to WILL’s study. This pattern was consistent across both subjects, with a slightly larger decline recorded in math.

“Even looking just at the surface level with no control variables, we see that school districts that shut down in-person learning again in Fall 2020 tended to have lower levels of proficiency than those that opened their doors,” the report states. In English/Language Arts proficiency rates were more than 2 percentage points higher in schools that reopened, and nearly 7 points higher in math.

“The data here confirms that many of the fears of these reformers were justified: shutdowns are leading to an important additional drop in student proficiency that is even greater than that observed in school districts that have applied other reopening models,” the study concludes.

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