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Some central Ohio schools slow in recovering from students' learning loss regarding math

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Since the COVID-19 pandemic, students have fallen behind in math – all across the country, and right here in central Ohio.

Education Recovery Scorecard, a research project through Harvard and Stanford Universities, shows that as of last year, some central Ohio school districts are about a grade level behind in math compared to where they were in 2019. The study looked at math test scores for students in 3rd to 8th grade before and after the pandemic, and included 8,000 communities in 40 states and Washington, D.C.

Columbus City Schools had the biggest slip of central Ohio districts included in the study, with students landing about 1.15 grade levels behind where they had been, the data shows. Groveport-Madison fell behind just under one grade level, and Reynoldsburg and South-Western City Schools were .78 and .73 grades behind respectively.

The city’s more affluent suburbs saw very little math-learning loss. Dublin, Worthington and Upper Arlington students lost about a tenth of a grade level – which is just a month or so. Olentangy Local came in with a slide of just 0.15 grade levels.

Adding up

Columbus City Schools recently set a goal of raising 7th grader math proficiency from about 15% now to 23% by June 2028. The district will put much of its focus on 4th, 5th and 6th grades.

Columbus City Schools' Chief of Strategy and Performance Russell Brown told the board of education during a late November meeting that it’s an ambitious goal.

He said among other Ohio school districts, consistent gains of 1.75% a year – the amount needed to hit the goal – are rare.

Brown also said that Columbus City Schools’ student population is different than many others in the state.

“We have a much higher poverty rate than many systems around the state and poverty is an indication of need,” Brown said.

Factors

The Education Recovery Scorecard study considered how many students in a district receive free lunches.

In central Ohio, districts with higher rates of free and reduced lunch – like Columbus and Groveport Madison – mostly saw proportionally larger math learning loss, though it was not a perfect trend.

Stephane Lavertu, a professor of public policy at The Ohio State University’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs, said free and reduced lunch eligibility is a common, though not perfect, proxy for poverty.

Lavertu said to explain a student’s proficiency rate in something like math, you have to look at a number of factors – not just the schools, but students’ home lives, health and environment.

“And folks are very concerned about inequities by income,” Lavertu said. “And that sort of goes to the heart of the role of education in the United States. We see it as an equalizer, right?”

Statistics

One in five Columbus students have special learning needs and nearly the same number speak a language other than English, according to Brown.

In general, the education recovery study found that in central Ohio, lower income and Hispanic students had larger decreases in math test scores than wealthier white students. Black students showed the most learning loss.

But Lavertu noted that there is tremendous variation even within specific racial, ethnic or socioeconomic groups.

The study concluded that where children lived during the pandemic mattered most to their academic progress – even more than family background, income or internet speed.

“In other words, there are some districts that did well in terms of helping students recover, regardless of their socioeconomic status or racial or ethnic identification,” Lavertu said.

Still, Lavertu said urban districts tended to have the most severe losses. Math scores have likely rebounded slower because math is not practiced as easily as language, and families often struggle to help kids learn the subject, he said.

"There are some districts that did well in terms of helping students recover, regardless of their socioeconomic status or racial or ethnic identification."
- Stephane Lavertu, OSU Professor

Doing the math

To recover, schools can provide intensive tutoring and summer programming and extend school years, Lavertu said. He noted, however, that it is challenging for school districts go get back on track when students don’t show up to class. In Columbus, about 57% of students missed at least 18 days of school last year, making them what the state considers to be chronically absent.

“It's hard to predict the future, but it doesn't look great for some students,” Lavertu said.

Columbus City Schools' Director of Secondary Curriculum and Instruction Brian Morton said the district is trying to recover by giving teachers more tools to engage students.

“So, it's not looking and doing math, but actually talking about the math and how we go about making math happen,” Morton said.

Morton said, for example, that math is used in video games, computers and other facets of everyday life.

Columbus Region Three mathematics coach Jada Jackson said the question she hears most from students is, "Why do I need to know this?"

“I try to explain, you know, it's everywhere they go. If they got in a car with their parents and drove to the mall, there's all kinds of math involved there. They just don't readily recognize it,” Jackson said.

She said being able to think critically and with reason – which involves math – remains important all throughout our lives.

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Allie Vugrincic is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She comes to Columbus from her hometown of Warren, Ohio, where she was a reporter, features writer and photographer for four years at the Tribune Chronicle and The Vindicator newspapers.