Student Learning Loss Testimony
Published on December 15th, 2022
Testimony of the New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents presented by James D. Cultrara, executive secretary, regarding student learning loss.
December 14, 2022
We are grateful to Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, Chairman of the Assembly Education Committee and to members of the Committee for convening this hearing and for their interest in knowing more about the challenges schools continue to face in addressing learning loss of students across the state – including students enrolled in Catholic schools.
While enduring the enormous challenges brought on by the COVID pandemic, Catholic schools have once again proven their dedication to and singular focus on the well-being of the children they serve. By faithfully implementing COVID safety protocols, our schools were the quickest to reopen and were able to provide children and their families precisely what was needed most: safe, continuous, in-person instruction. Although learning loss and its ramifications continue to reveal themselves to this day, our resumption of in-person instruction clearly mitigated its impact.
The continued manifestation of learning loss is just one of the devastating effects of the pandemic. More than 30 Catholic schools closed in 2020 due to the loss and reduction of income of our tuition-paying families. To re-establish in-person instruction in the 2020-21 school year, schools were forced to shoulder many unanticipated costs: Hiring additional nurses and other staff, complying with masking and testing requirements, purchasing personal protective equipment, acquiring cleaning supplies, arranging for ongoing sanitizing throughout and between each day, installing or modifying air purification equipment, purchasing and training for additional technology, collecting and reporting data to the Department of Health on a daily basis – the list goes on and on. Taken together thus far, the average cost approached $5,000 per pupil – and this does not account for the on-going cost of responding to learning loss among our students. Although a small percentage of our schools have been eligible for some of the federal emergency COVID-relief programs, some of which can be used to address learning loss, the relief has fallen dramatically short of what is needed – and certainly far below the per/pupil level of support which has been made available to public schools.
With the recent release of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results and many media headlines that followed, one might conclude that there was little to no learning loss among students in Catholic schools. But headlines are just that and they never reveal the full story. Considered the “Nation’s Report Card,” the NAEP data allow for state-by-state comparisons and a nationally representative sample of how Catholic, charter, and district-run public schools performed on reading and math tests between 2019 and 2022, as illustrated below.
|Grade 4 Math
|Grade 4 Reading
|Grade 8 Math
|Grade 8 Reading
The results tend to back up the idea that Catholic schools were a bright spot during the gloom of the pandemic. The results on charter schools are less positive and look more like regular public schools. As the table reveals, Catholic schools showed a slight increase (not statistically significant) in performance on 8th grade reading, and held steady in 4th grade math, at achievement levels that were already higher than public schools. Catholic schools lost ground between 2019 and 2022 on 8th grade math and 4th grade reading (also not statistically significant), but the declines were less than what public schools saw. Jonathan Butcher, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, tweeted, “instead of losing a year as some states/districts did, Catholic schools saved a year.”
We contend that the positive performance of Catholic schools during this period was attributable to multiple factors including 1) very quickly and effectively implementing remote instruction immediately after the shutdown in March of 2020; 2) being among the first to come back to in-person instruction everywhere we could for the 2020-21 school year; 3) intentionally doing a good job with identifying and addressing student needs; and 4) having families who are actively engaged in their children’s education.
However, learning loss is not reflected in the “good numbers” we see reflected in the NAEP scores Learning loss cannot and should not be measured only by test scores. It is more deeply rooted in the complex realities of the pandemic. There has been a profound and significant impact on the social-emotional and mental health of families and their children as manifested is varied ways in school. A more thorough assessment of the fragility of our students, teachers, and administrators is needed. Principals face increasing requests by teachers for help and intervention in their classrooms. Parent requests for counseling and academic help is way up. One needs only to look into the faces of children, the faces of their families, of teachers and administrators to sense the precariousness and our superintendents fear they will see more PTSD in years to come.
Learning loss is greatest among those who had already been identified as struggling learners – many of whom have few resources outside of schools and little support at home. For these students, school is a haven with routine, trusted adults, and an abundance of nurturing social interactions. When COVID-19 struck, forcing schools to close their doors and move to online learning, anxiety set in especially for those most vulnerable. This sanctuary was whipped away overnight, plunging these students, plus educators and parents, into the unknown. To make matters worse, for students in our schools suspected of having a learning disability, the mandatory and much needed evaluations by Committees on Special Education (CSE) effectively ceased. These children continue to go without appropriate evaluations and intervention plans and as a result, their learning loss has yet to be fully appreciated.
For the majority of students in most schools in the state and nation, especially hard hitting is the loss of years of education in mathematics. Even more so than reading, math is “relentlessly cumulative” and builds on concepts from the previous year. It is incumbent upon all of us to be honest about those losses and make sure that we’re doing our best to accelerate instruction for students.
Our Catholic school teachers and administrators have worked tirelessly to engage students one-on-one, virtually and in hybrid configurations in 2020 and 2021 and fully in-person since then. Their attention to the needs of individual students has revealed the gross deficiency of resources needed to address these needs. To this end, we need to cooperate in the recovery stage in the same way we were obliged to cooperate at the height of the pandemic. As a society, we cannot afford to work in isolation. The pandemic affected us all and we all need to collaborate on the most effective instructional strategies for the students we collectively serve.
Getting scores up to where they were before the pandemic simply isn’t good enough. In order to make up for the lost instruction and lost time, we need to accelerate learning. We need to not only get students growing at the rate they were growing before the pandemic, but we need to get them to the academic level they would have been had there not been a pandemic, and that takes acceleration, that takes work.
Obviously, the more time we have the more thoroughly we can close that gap. For older students however, their instructional plans will need to be accelerated and more intentional if they are to fully recover. Engaging with grade-level colleagues to share best instructional practices that yield results will be critical for these students. The same can be said for younger students, but at least for them, time is on their side.
We urge the legislature and Governor to provide a meaningful level of funding to enable all schools, not just public schools, to address the needs of their students and to get these students to where they need to be. Significant resources are needed for mental health, social-emotional learning, accelerated instruction, teacher training, tutoring, and instructional technology – and for students in the higher grades, we do not have the luxury of time – these resources are needed now.
In Summary: The adverse impact of COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be revealed in the years to come, and the most significant short- and long-term effects on the economy and society will most likely be attributable to the learning loss which began when schools were forced to shut down. While we do not question the decision to close schools – indeed it was necessary to save lives – we remind lawmakers that the shutdown was imposed not on some schools, not on just public schools, but on all schools, and all schools, therefore, are struggling to recover. Just as the shutdown and subsequent state imposed COVID prevention and mitigation protocols applied to all schools, the state resources provided to respond to learning loss must also apply to all schools. The families who enroll their children in religious and independent schools deserve nothing less.