Pandemic accelerated learning loss at 9 Tulare Co. schools

Small districts in Tulare County fair better than unified districts from 2018-19 before the pandemic to 2021-22 after the pandemic

Tulare county – The California Department of Education released its 2021–22 Assessment Data last month which, for the first time, definitively showed the negative impact the pandemic’s school closures had on student achievement.

Statewide, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards on the 2022 Smarter Balanced summative assessments declined by 4 percentage points (from 51% to 47%) for English language arts (ELA) and 7% points (from 40% to 33%) for mathematics when compared to students who took the tests in 2018–19—before the pandemic.

The release of statewide test scores followed the posting of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results in reading and math for fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Like most of the country, California’s NAEP math scores declined from 2019 to 2022, though not by as much as the average drop nationally. In reading, California fourth graders’ scores also experienced a small decline that was less than the drop nationally. Of particular note: California eighth graders held steady with no decline in reading over the 2019 NAEP while the nation as a whole saw a drop.

Locally, more than half of Tulare County school districts saw the number of students proficient in ELA fall from 2019-2021. Nine local districts saw losses greater than the state and county average. While Springville led the county in learning loss with 10.5% decline, it still maintained a percentage closer to the state average than larger school districts. Exeter had the largest loss among unified school districts of -9.01%, followed by Visalia Unified at -8.4% and Lindsay Unified at -8.29%.

Exeter Unified Superintendent George Eddy said the district is still seeing the effects of distance learning on students. He said many students are two and three years behind grade level and it will take at least two years to get them back on track.

“I don’t like to use the pandemic as an excuse, but in all reality, closing the schools and putting him on distance learning did not help,” Eddy said.

Eddy said Exeter is not unique in it’s approach to address the learning gap and has implemented many of the same interventions as other districts. The difference is the district now heavily evaluate what is working and what is not. While districts have used testing data for decades, Eddy said there is now more of emphasis on identifying tends in the data to discern which approaches are working, who they are working for and why they aren’t working for others. Eddy said the biggest challenge is for students currently in second grade, because they are adjusting to the social, emotional, physical and mental differences of being in a classroom for the first time after spending the first two years in school at home.

“I’m hoping that this year, we have worked hard enough and students have learned, we’ll be able to catch up a little bit, because biggest hit you’re going see is your elementary [grades],” Eddy said.

The dip in higher grades was due to the lack of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. Eddy shared when he was a child, making grades to play sports or be involve and band were often the only thing motivating many students to study.

“When you don’t have your band students together, AG, FFA kids together, when you don’t have the sports kids together, the interest goes down and you know, a lot of kids, that’s pretty important to them,” Eddy said.

Visalia was the only one of the three to score better than the county average of 38.03% proficiency but saw the greatest decline between ELA and math in the county, -8.4% and -8.13%, behind Strathmore. VUSD’s ELA proficiency was only better than five unified districts in Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties.

Andre Pecina, Administrator, Communications, Strategy, & Outreach for Visalia Unified, said half of the district’s students were not proficient in ELA and two-thirds were not proficient in math. Those on the bubble of proficiency took two steps back while students who were succeeding before the pandemic, are generally still finding success. He also cautioned against comparing the 2018-19 scores with 2021-22 because the test was completely different, with fewer but more complicated questions. He said instructional time students lost not being in class were the primary reasons for the decline in state scores.

Our scores are our new baseline after the pandemic, and we recognize that they are not where we want them to be; however, we will be relentless in getting all of our students to grade-level and college and/or career ready,” Pecina said.

In order to close the learning loss gap, Pecina said the district will focus on acceleration instead of remediation. For K-3 students, each school site has a teacher on special assignment whose focus is in-person, academic support in ELA and math. For grades 4-12, the board has approved a contract with Paper, a chat-based tutoring service that is available 24/7 and in multiple langauges by using teachers from around the world. Since it was launched for VUSD on Sept. 20, the district has had more than 6,000 tutoring sessions.  

We know that distance and hybrid learning were the primary factor in the decline in student learning; however, we used every resource available to us to ensure students were engaged in the best learning possible within the restrictions of the pandemic,” Pecina said.

A positive that came out of the pandemic was parent involvement in student learning. Pecina said many parents commented on how much harder the curriculum is now than when they were in school and didn’t realize the pressure their students put on themselves to try and keep up when they were struggling. The district has shared with parents the following questions to give them an idea of how they students are faring academically and emotionally, such as what was the most exciting thing you learned today?, what was a challenge for you at school? and what made you smile today at school?.

“These conversations are important because they give parents insight as to how their students are performing and feeling at school,” Pecina said.

Some Improvement

Only about 40% of the districts in Tulare County improved on their pre-pandemic ELA numbers. Not surprisingly, the school district that resisted closing the longest, Outside Creek south of Farmersville, made the largest gains from 2019-2022 increases the number of students proficient in ELA by more than 10%. Like Outside Creek, many of the county’s smallest school district made the largest gains, including Stone Corral, Monson-Sultana, Three Rivers and Terra Bella.

Outside Creek did not return phone calls as of press time.

Stone Corral, a district of about 130 students east or Orosi in Yettem and Seville, still had one of the lowest percentages in the county with just 15.38% of students at or above proficient in ELA. Despite the pandemic lockdowns, Three Rivers managed to increase its numbers to more than 60% proficient in ELA.

Just west on Highway 198, Sequoia Union in Lemoncove was the most consistent school in the county, with just a fraction of a percent change from 2019 to 2022. Sequoia Union remains at 44% proficiency, above the county average and within reach of the state average 47.06%. Among unified districts, Dinuba was the model of consistency seeing an increase of 0.23% in ELA throughout the pandemic. 

Vickey Armstrong, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, said teachers throughout the district attempted to balance meeting students where they were at without lowering standards or graduation requirements. At the elementary level, Dinuba Unified made tutoring and reading intervention specialists available in the afternoon and teachers held small group times to help those students falling behind in class. At the high school level, the district offered access to online tutoring and a credit recovery period at the end of each day. The district also scheduled extra time for teachers on Fridays to do planning and strategy meetings with coaches from the Tulare County Office of Education.

“They would give some little nuggets to support the online learning, but also serve as a place where the teachers could come for their particular grade span, and share ideas with one another,” Armstrong said.

The biggest difference for Dinuba might have been their online attendance numbers. Armstrong said the district had an attendance review team comprised of the district’s director of intervention and support, as well as the homeschool liaison, learning director from each school site. The teams would meet once per month to check in with students, schedule home visits and talk with parents to determine support strategies for chronically absent students.

“Did we have students that still came back that, you know, the family structure just kind of fell apart during that time and it was hard to get them engaged? Yes, we had some of that, but our efforts to really stay on top of it were really very intentional,” Armstrong said.

Math Scores

Similarly, nine schools in Tulare County saw declines in the percent of students proficient in math larger than the state and county average. While Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified did an excellent job holding the line in ELA, the district saw the largest drop, 12.67%, in either ELA or math of any local district.

Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified did not return phone calls as of press time.

Cutler-Orosi was followed by Strathmore, which dropped 12.02%, Tipton with -10.5% and Woodlake Unified at -9.93%. Woodlake had one of the lowest percentages of proficient students in math at just 14.01%, third behind Farmersville Unified’s 11.14% and Alpaugh’s 5.73% among unified school districts.

Woodlake Unified Superintendent Laura Gonzalez said even after the school district returned to in-person instruction in 2021-22, more than half of the district’s students chose to remain at home on independent study, and about 40% of staff was not vaccinated, and so missed a large portion of the year quarantining.

“That was something that was out of the school district’s hands,” Gonzalez said. “And when on independent study, it just didn’t fare well. The kids did not do as well as if they were at school.”

Another issue during the pandemic was the frustration of parents who were unable or didn’t understand how to check on their child’s school projects, classroom tests and grades. Now that all students are back in the classroom, Gonzalez said Woodlake has gone back to the basics of learning, meaning each lesson identifies what a student should know by the end, ask them to demonstrate that knowledge and then test them on their ability to recall that knowledge. Woodlake has also returned to student assemblies celebrating academic achievements and recognition of extra-curricular achievements at board meetings.

“So it’s creating a culture and recognition of success related to academics,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said instead of focusing on intervention, the district is focusing on enrichment. Woodlake is investing time in developing robotics teams and competitions, and expanding its aviation program, where students can earn an aviation certificate before they graduate from college.

“It can’t all be negative, it has to be positive, too,” Gonzalez said. “When students ask the question, ‘When are you ever going to use this?’, we can say, ‘Well, here’s an example’.”

Just three local districts improved on the number of students proficient in math. Sequoia Union saw the largest increase in proficiency of 9.24% but Stone Corral’s 2.06% increase put them over both the county and state average with 34.68% proficiency.

Stone Corral did not return phone calls as of press time.

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