John Locke Update / Research Brief

Should students repeat a grade due to COVID-19 school closures?

posted on in COVID-19 Series, Education, Education (PreK-12)
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On March 23, Gov. Cooper signed Executive Order 120, which closed K-12 public school statewide through May 15.  If conditions do not improve significantly in April, Cooper may decide to close public schools for the remainder of the school year.  Education Week reports that 21 states have already done so, including Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama.

Immediately after Gov. Cooper’s announcement, most public school teachers started delivering online instruction.  Students who do not have home internet access or a suitable device to access online content were given packets of assignments by their teachers.  The mobilization effort has been remarkable, albeit uneven across classrooms, schools, and districts.

Despite their best efforts, however, educators and researchers worry about the “COVID-19 slide,” that is, learning loss magnified by the interruption of conventional classroom instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic.  To estimate the magnitude of the COVID-19 slide, Beth Tarasawa and Megan Kuhfeld, researchers for the Northwest Evaluation Association, used MAP Growth assessments to project the average academic growth trajectory by grade for reading and mathematics.  They found,

Preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year. However, in mathematics, students are likely to show much smaller learning gains, returning with less than 50% of the learning gains and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions.

Obviously, the magnitude of the learning loss for individuals students depends on the quality of instruction, parental involvement, and numerous other factors.  That said, studies of summer learning loss show that disadvantaged students tend to experience more severe learning losses than their more affluent classmates.  Researchers worry that disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and other at-risk populations that tend to struggle academically will fall further behind.

With these populations in mind, Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, published a provocative op-ed in the Washington Post last week, arguing that low-income, low-performing elementary students should repeat their current grade and, if possible, remain with their current teacher.  He recommends that other schools, including affluent schools, middle schools, and high schools, consider this approach. Still, he is less concerned about the severity of learning loss for these populations than disadvantaged students.

Teachers would develop individualized plans that included small-group instruction, ability grouping of students, and online learning opportunities for the retained students.  Teachers also would administer high-quality diagnostic tests to ascertain learning needs.  Students who perform at or above grade-level on these standardized math and reading tests would be allowed to move on to the next grade.

Petrilli acknowledges some of the barriers to this plan. The presence of two kindergarten cohorts would necessitate additional teachers, classrooms, and funding.  Perhaps the most significant obstacle is public opinion.

I haven’t encountered much support for the idea.  The Washington Post comment section reflected near-universal disapproval.  “This op-ed, by an education dilettante, is an absolute fantasy,” one self-identified public school teacher wrote.  That said, many commenters appeared to overlook a key component to the proposal, i.e., that primarily low-income, low-performing elementary students would be subject to grade retention.  Others seemed to be distracted by Petrilli’s credentials or the work of the Fordham Institute.  Still others simply wanted to air their grievances about President Trump, even though neither Trump nor U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos mentioned the idea.

Beyond public opinion, research suggests that children that repeat grades generally do not benefit.  Many retained students do not sustain the academic advantages that an additional year of grade-level instruction purportedly affords.  Other studies claim that forcing children to repeat a grade increases the likelihood that they will drop out.  Of course, grade retention of this magnitude would be unprecedented.  As of the 2016-17 school year, nearly 3.2 million students repeated one or more grades.  Millions more would repeat a grade under Petrilli’s proposal, so much of the existing research literature may not be applicable.

Recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that parents would have the option of keeping their children in the same grade next year.  Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran emphasized that it should be a collaborative decision between parents and educators. Ultimately, parents should decide whether their child is retained or advanced to the next grade, a decision that ideally follows from a consultation with school-based educators, administrators, and staff.

In the end, grade retention is a blunt instrument for addressing a few lost months of learning.  States should give parents the option to place their children in the same grade next year, but I believe there are better ways to address the problem of learning loss.  Stay tuned.

As Vice President for Research, Dr. Stoops oversees the research team’s writing and analysis across the spectrum of public policy issues. He specializes in pre-K-12 education. Before joining the Locke Foundation, he worked as the program assistant for the Child… ...

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