RALEIGH — A new “year-over-year trends” report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) indicates that elementary school students in the state are recovering faster from pandemic learning loss than middle school students.
“Our continued improvement as identified in this report is a testament to the commitment and diligence of educators across North Carolina and a result of what can be done when there is intentionality in strategically implementing programming to support students who were most affected by the pandemic,” State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said in a press release. “This report provides the information we need to continue designing academic programming in subjects where students need additional support while allowing us to better target resources to specific grades and content areas.”
“Tracking academic recovery across a decade – spanning from 2013 to 2023 – is something that has enabled our agency to chart a roadmap out of the pandemic and put our students on the path to recovery,” Truitt added. “While there is more work to be done, our agency’s Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration has worked closely with school leaders to help them design recovery programs and strategically target resources based on this data and I know we will continue to see improvements with time.”
The report was presented to the State Board of Education at its monthly meeting on Jan. 2.
NCDPI and SAS Institute Inc. collaborated on the report which uses a new method for calculating recovery by looking at and comparing three areas; pre-pandemic trends, pandemic impact and distance to full recovery.
The data compared includes how state achievement changed annually from 2013 to 2023; drilling down on achievement on state math, reading, and science exams during the 2013-19 and 2017-19 school years and comparing how far scores dropped in 2021. The comparison then looks at 2022 and 2023 results to see where the gaps remain.
The legislature has provided $550,000 for the trends report to be produced both this year and next year.
NCDPI State Director of Research and Evaluation Jeni Corn, who presented the report’s findings, noted the approach “really helps us take that long view” of where students in the state were in terms of achievement, how the pandemic impacted that achievement, and where they are now.
The report is complex, but overall showed the needle is moving, albeit slower than others in certain grades and subjects. One exception is high school English II scores that rose in 2021 and have stayed higher than they were before the pandemic.
The report highlights that elementary students, particularly in reading, are closer to full post-pandemic academic recovery. In particular, early literacy gains stand out, especially third-grade reading scores.
Literacy achievement rising in elementary grades has been credited to the implementation of LETRS, a literacy program that is already bringing results for K-3 students and is championed by Truitt.
LETRS, which stands for “Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling,” is based on the Science of Reading using phonics. The state has invested roughly $114 million in retraining the state’s 44,000 elementary school teachers in LETRS.
In contrast, middle schools face challenges, with sixth- through eighth-grade math and reading exam achievements still not reaching pre-pandemic levels. The slower middle school recovery underscores a need for targeted programs to help older students catch up.
Another key finding of the report showed the pandemic hit math “more negatively” than reading and that math assessments have a “greater distance to the recovery thresholds both one year and two years later” than reading.
Last year, Truitt told North State Journal increasing math achievement was the next battle to tackle and that she would like to see statewide use of a diagnostic tool for math like the ones used for reading.
Acknowledging achievement and proficiency levels plummeted following the pandemic, State Board of Education members floated the idea of using a shortened set of data years to comply with federal requirements in terms of charting achievement. It was discussed at one point that the post-pandemic year of 2021-2022 should be used as the achievement comparison starting point for five-year tracking of achievement instead of a ten year one that would include the pre-pandemic years.
This suggestion caused some confusion and in an interview with North State Journal, NCDPI Deputy State Superintendent Dr. Michael Maher clarified the issue, indicating he thought the annual achievement goals have been confused with the year-over-year trends report.
Maher clarified that the trend report was about trying to see what trajectory kids were on before the pandemic, what trajectory they are on now and what that means for learning recovery.
“I think unfortunately, for me, in the confusion, folks miss the big take away from that that data set is that if you look at the trajectories post pandemic, they are greater than the trajectories we were on before the pandemic.”
“Have we recovered? No. Are kids where we want them to be? No. But we’re making progress,” Maher said. “Maybe the progress is slower than people would like, but we’re making progress.”
“This long-term goal work, a requirement of our ESSA State Plan, goes back to 2016 as our first benchmark,” Maher continued. “You set out these ambitious, yet achievable goals for where you expect student performance – it doesn’t take into consideration anything like a pandemic – and now, we’re at a point where we can begin to think about what the next set of goals might look like.”
Maher said he and other staff had been looking at shifting from 10-year achievement goals to five-year goals, explaining “The idea being that we can mark interim progress much better if we keep it in the forefront rather than this idea of like 10 years out.”
Maher added, “That’s an entire generation of kids that will have made their way through school.”
Achievement levels will look lower than one might see elsewhere because the data only includes achievement levels four and five (career and college ready) as opposed to including level three (grade level proficiency),” Maher added.
He said NCDPI would be recommending to the board that using 2023-24 as the starting year for five-year achievement benchmark to get a little further away from the pandemic.
“People are really focused on that backend number – the ten-year goal of, for example, 74% proficient [for] levels four and five – as opposed to the expected percentage increase per year,” said Maher.
Maher explained they still expect the same rate of growth and that the only difference is the benchmark period has been moved because of the pandemic.
“This idea that you’re lowering standards… no, your expectation is the same,” Maher said. “The average 2% growth per year over the next five to ten years is what we expect.”
Maher described keeping growth rates the same, schools that might be deemed low-performing that meet or exceed the expected growth will have a better chance of seeing their status change in a positive direction.
“The schools that are most in need of support will become readily apparent to us because they are not masked by this unattainable long-term goal,” Maher said.
The state board won’t be taking the change in benchmark years up again next month, but Maher said he plans to address it at the board’s March meeting. He also said that work will likely be moved out to 2025.