New federal data collected on the academic setbacks incurred by public school students since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic shows that virtually as many students began the current school year behind in at least one grade subject as did last year – the latest research to bolster concerns over the severity of academic decline and the ongoing challenges to rebounding.
“Many students were behind grade level at the start of the current academic year, including in core academic subjects like English and mathematics,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the data arm of the Education Department. “Both this school year and last school year, public school leaders estimated that about half of their students began the school year behind grade level in at least one academic subject. These data suggest that academic recovery will take time.”
Public school leaders estimate that about half, or 49%, of their students beginning the 2022-23 year behind grade level in at least one academic subject compared to 50% last year, according to data released Thursday by the center in its School Pulse Panel , which provides ongoing information about the impact of COVID-19 on schools, students and staff. Prior to the pandemic, roughly 36% of students began the school year behind grade level.
The data represents the latest snapshot of the challenges faced by US public schools collected by federal researchers from more than 1,000 K-12 schools during the month of December.
The good news is that nearly all public schools are employing a combination of learning-recovery strategies to help students get back on track. Moreover, 58% of public schools have provided professional development for teachers and staff on learning recovery, and 37% have hired additional staff to provide more small-group and individual instruction.
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However, the quality, consistency and rigor of the strategies adopted varies greatly, with more than 8 in 10 public schools relying at least in part on remedial instruction – an oft-criticized remedy that uses content from prior years to catch up students – and just 37% of schools offering the so-called “high-dosage tutoring” that researchers have been touting as the gold standard and that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona have been urging schools to adopt.
“Set a goal of giving every child that fell behind during the pandemic at least 30 minutes per day, three times a week, with a well-trained tutor,” Cardona said last week in a major speech that outlined the Biden administration’s education priorities for the year ahead.
“Safely reopening schools is just the baseline. It’s not good enough,” he said. “We must make up for lost time.”
More than 80% of schools reported offering tutoring as a way to catch up students, and among those schools, 59% reported offering standard tutoring, 37% reported offering high-dose tutoring and 22% reported offering self-paced tutoring – where students work on their own, typically online. Notably 17% of schools reported not offering tutoring at all.
High-dosage tutoring is defined as tutoring that’s provided “for at least 30 minutes per session, one-on-one or in small group instruction, offered three or more times per week, is provided by educators or well-trained tutors and aligns with an evidence-based core curriculum.”
When it comes to high-dose tutoring, the teachers and aids administering that tutoring are significantly more likely to have received specialized training and professional development in effective tutoring methods and are significantly more likely to become specialists in the subject content, compared to standard tutoring.
But just because schools offer tutoring doesn’t mean that they require students to participate in it or that students are taking advantage of it. Indeed, National Center for Education Statistics researchers estimate that less than half of public school students are receiving tutoring and that just 10% of students are receiving high-dosage tutoring.
Rachel Hansen, a statistician with the center who compiled the new data, warned that those percentages could be even lower due to the myriad ways schools consider what they provide as high-dosage when it may not meet their specified definition.
“Overall it seems that we have a long road ahead of us in trying to get kids back to grade level and try to reduce that number [of students who are a grade level behind] from 50% and get it back down to 36%,” she says.