Commentary

Remote learning correlated with greater K-12 learning loss, study finds

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A new study recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that students with greater access to in-person learning versus remote or hybrid learning during the pandemic had reduced learning losses, as measured by state assessments, in Spring 2021. The research team was led by Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University, author of several books on pregnancy and parenting, and an administrator of the COVID-19 School Data Hub.

Oster and company noted that “the overall picture suggests that districts with more historically underserved students [such as those with higher proportions of Black and Hispanic students] were less likely to have access to in-person schooling,” and curiously, that “districts with higher COVID-19 rates showed greater in-person schooling.”

Researchers tallied data on school enrollment counts, demographics, assessment scores between the 2016-2019 average and 2021 results, and “schooling mode,” which refers to whether schools were administering remote, hybrid, or in-person learning. They note that “access to in-person instruction indicates that schools were open for full-time in-person attendance, but students may still have had the opportunity to attend virtually.”

The study examined data in 11 states: Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming, to understand the relationship between schooling policies, demographics, politics, and student achievement. It measured the changes in pass rates for students in various school districts, controlling for “county-level unemployment rate, time-varying district demographics, time-varying district enrollment and test participation rates.” The authors note controlling for these variables are important to better determine the causal relationship between schooling modes and achievement because of changes in enrollment with virtual schooling, among other factors. 

Overall, they conclude the data “suggest that moving a district from fully virtual to 100% access to in-person learning would have reduced pass rate losses in Spring 2021 by 13 to 14 percentage points in math and about 8 percentage points in ELA [English & Language Arts].”

Reflecting a relatively diverse array of education systems, three New England states were included in this data set. This should pique the interest of Mainers. But it also begs the question: why wasn’t Maine included as well? 

All of the above-mentioned data is available for Maine, except for one source: comparable student assessment scores. During the 2020-2021 school year, the Maine Department of Education (MDOE) changed the test used to measure student achievement. As MDOE states in its “State Assessments” panel on its data dashboard, the new and old tests “are not the same type of assessment” and therefore, “student data and results cannot be compared.”

Unfortunately for Mainers trying to understand how state and local policy affected K-12 education, this kind of analysis is now essentially impossible. 

This was a choice, and a blatant abdication of public officials’ duty to transparency and service. It cannot solely be attributed to incompetence. Administration and MDOE staff, likely at the highest levels, made this decision and knew what the effects would be. 

Why would the Mills administration do something like this? National data abound which show immense learning loss over 2020 and 2021. Some, like the study recently published by Oster and colleagues, also show a significant correlation between greater access to in-person learning and higher levels of student achievement. Why wouldn’t they want to fully understand these effects on Maine students?

For present and future parents of Maine K-12 students, this brings frustration and outrage. How could public officials tasked with ensuring the highest level of education, in the most fragile time for young people in decades, throw away a key metric for measuring students’ academic growth?

While MDOE has not yet responded directly to The Maine Wire about assessment changes, previous statements show that they knew that changing the assessment would moot any analysis of schooling disruptions wrought by state and local administrators over two years in response to COVID-19. Even so, it told Maine Public in November that “the assessment results are still being used by schools and teachers…but that information isn’t being shared with the public,” since the department was granted a waiver from the federal DOE. In a bout of circular logic, a spokesperson for the department rationalized this because there are “implementation impacts” that occur when moving to a new test, which they did not pursue until the pandemic.

For many, this would be a confusing answer. But, for those who have been watching the Mills administration closely, this should not come as a surprise, though it should be no less shocking. Many of The Maine Wire’s attempts to secure public data related to the effects of the pandemic have been delayed, ignored, or stonewalled by the alphabet soup of Maine state government agencies which have proscribed so much of daily life over the last two-plus years.

This example—yet another in a long list of state officials hiding from the public how their policies affected the state’s future—should raise red flags for all Mainers. People should be appalled at the willingness of this administration to openly degrade the public trust at nearly every turn, and raise their voices to ensure it never happens again.

About Nick Murray

Nick Murray, of Cornish, currently serves as Policy Analyst with Maine Policy Institute, writing, researching, and bringing Mainers together over the issues facing the state. Previously, he served as Outreach Coordinator, planning events to spread the word about Maine Policy's work to new audiences around Maine.

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