Gilbert’s school districts face learning-loss challenge

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(Source: Arizona Department of Education/Community Impact Newspaper)

(Source: Arizona Department of Education/Community Impact Newspaper)

Image description
(Sources: Arizona Department of Education, Gilbert Public Schools, Higley USD, Chandler USD/Community Impact Newspaper)
Image description
(Source: Gilbert Public Schools/Community Impact Newspaper)
Jeff Singer, a Campo Verde High School mathematics teacher, admitted he was somewhat hesitant to give up some summer vacation to participate in a program to help struggling students transition from junior high to high school.

However, after the first quarter of the new school year, Singer’s view has changed dramatically.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Singer said.

Singer said he credits the Gilbert Public Schools program with improving his relationships with students and giving them a “growth mindset” that is helping them overcome what was lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program is just one way schools in Gilbert are addressing learning loss—the drop-off in meeting standards largely attributable to the difficult learning environment during the pandemic.

Learning loss can be measured in assessment testing, but school officials have found that difficult as it had been two years between state tests when students took them last spring, and there were some changes in who took the tests, officials said. Still, through looking at other testing, judging the trends they see in data and listening anecdotally to teachers, education officials acknowledge the phenomena is real.

The three districts in Gilbert—GPS, Higley USD and Chandler USD—outperformed the state in passing the AzM2 tests, and although the districts’ passing scores declined, generally they were less steep than the state’s, according to Arizona Department of Education test data.The U.S. government is helping address learning loss in its latest relief package for schools, the third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funding, which Congress passed in March. One provision of ESSER III is that 20% of funds be used on learning loss.

The program Singer worked in was funded through ESSER III money distributed to Gilbert Public Schools. Free summer school, additional tutoring opportunities and new curriculum are other ways area districts are addressing learning loss.

While school officials said the test results are concerning, they believe they can help students get back on track from the pandemic.

“I do think we’re going to get there—for sure,” said Barbara Newman, GPS assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. “I know that there is that concern, and I can see why. I mean, we missed an entire quarter of school in the spring [of 2020]. ... Even last year, we did our best to say, ‘These are our priority standards, and these are what we need to teach.’”

Difficulties in measuring

Although district officials said the state scores are hard to compare between 2019 and 2021, the three Gilbert districts scored better and generally saw less of a decline than Maricopa County and statewide averages.

The county showed 41% of students passing in English language arts, down 3 percentage points from 2019; the state showed 38% passing, down 4 points. The three Gilbert districts were above 50% passing. Only Higley USD’s passing rate fell more than the state at 5 percentage points, but its 58% passing rate was highest overall among Gilbert districts.

Math scores were lower overall and the declines were steeper, with the county and state each falling 11 percentage points to 34% and 31%, respectively. Again, the Gilbert districts outscored the county and state, and the declines were smaller: GPS fell 3 percentage points, and HUSD and Chandler USD fell 9 percentage points each.

“Math is completely different,” said Jennifer Fletcher, CUSD executive director of accountability, assessment and research. “It’s harder to target instruction. Teachers can’t see kiddos’ faces when they are completely perplexed when they aren’t in the same room.”

However, Newman said the two-year gap between state assessments and the changes associated with moving from AzMerit in 2019 to AzM2 in 2021—mostly stemming from far fewer students taking the test—created “weird anomalies” in the data when it comes to measuring learning.

“When we’re looking at the overall spring state assessment data, it is difficult for us to determine what is the difference because other than trends; that’s all we know,” Newman said.

Susan Borzych—the HUSD director of assessment and student information, and interim executive director of elementary education—said the differences make the state assessments impossible for HUSD to use and also affect the district’s internal assessments, which were aligned to the state tests.

“So as far as data is concerned, it’s kind of a nightmare,” she said.

Instead, HUSD is relying on its professional learning communities, or PLCs, which are groups of teachers organized usually by grade and/or subject, to judge what is needed.

“Teachers use that vehicle to talk about student data and to talk about where students are,” she said.

CUSD is taking a slightly different view of the issue, said Katie Nash, a CUSD teacher and president of the Chandler Education Association. The district is planning for additional tutoring and summer school opportunities, officials said.

“We are calling it unfinished learning instead of learning loss because they haven’t lost anything,” Nash said. “A loss would be they went through a school year and then it’s gone. They didn’t get to do everything that year, so it’s unfinished. Not gone forever.”

Newman said she also believes schools made the most of the limitations of the past year.

“We didn’t stop teaching and our kids didn’t stop learning in 2021,” Newman said. “I 100% can assure you that there was so much intentional teaching and learning going on.”

Federal help

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act from March 2020, Congress established the ESSER funding program to allow state educational agencies to fund local educational agencies—school districts and charter schools—for expenses attributed to the pandemic. Addressing learning loss was an allowable expense under ESSER I and II, but most of those funds were used on items such as additional sanitation and technology for virtual learning.

ESSER III is the largest round of funding and requires at least 20% of the funding be used on addressing learning loss. CUSD is expected to receive $30.66 million, and Higley USD is set to receive $7.87 million, but neither district has finalized plans.

GPS unveiled plans for its $22 million in ESSER III funds at a Sept. 28 school board meeting. The district’s plan for the $4.4 million in learning loss includes more learning opportunities outside the school day, on-demand tutoring for secondary students, continuing the adoption of new English language arts curriculum for students in grades 7-12, and the use of tests for grades K-12 to target students’ needs for school and to guide programming.

State Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, said she believes what would help students is smaller class sizes and individualized instruction.

“But that is an expensive proposition,” Pawlik said. “Those ESSER funds need to be spent by 2024, and if districts use that funding to establish new positions, they would have to find a different way to fund those positions after 2024.”

Playing catch-up

After ESSER III’s passage in March, all three districts moved to give free summer school offerings to help students who fell behind.

Singer’s boss at Campo Verde, Principal Tyler Dumas, said students were chosen for the transition program because campus educators believed they could benefit from additional academic or social-emotional support as they transition from eighth grade to high school, Dumas said.

This fall, each of the students has had either Singer or ELA teacher Tyler Merritt, or both. One student in the program even earned a Student of the Month award this fall, Dumas said. He said students’ grades are better, and they came to campus in the fall feeling comfortable.

“If you don’t come in with that relationship mindset and think you have to crack the whip and get these kids back to speed on behaviors, instead of building those relationships, I’m not sure that works,” Dumas said. “We’re trying to help kids get through this.”

Administrators at each of the districts said they believe the lag being seen will be overcome.

“We recognize that ... kids could be a little bit behind,” Borzych said. “And if that is the case, and if that is something that students are experiencing as a result of this, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they get caught up.”

Alexa D’Angelo contributed to this report.
By Tom Blodgett

Editor, Gilbert

Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent more than 30 years in journalism in Arizona and joined Community Impact Newspaper in July 2018 to launch the Gilbert edition. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he served as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication from 2005-19 and remains editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.


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