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Pandemic learning loss | Where Iowa students are falling behind and what parents can do

The NWEA found kids across the nation struggled to meet math benchmarks and the Iowa Department of Education reported a drop in literacy screening scores.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Parenting is tough during a normal year.

Factor in a global pandemic and it’s now gotten even harder.

Iowa COVID-19 case counts remain high in some counties, which has caused some schools move to 100% remote learning models.

“It has been a huge struggle,” Megan Boyd said.

Boyd, who lives in Johnston, is a mom of three.

Her boys, all in elementary school, started online learning last week.

“I've had a lot of tears,” Boyd said. “I feel like I can't provide my kids the education that they need and there's nothing I can do about it."

That’s because Boyd and her husband work full time. To accommodate the remote learning schedule, they had to hire someone to watch the kids during the day. 

Even with the teacher-led lessons, Boyd said the at-home schedule is weighing on her kids.

"We're setting alarms and timers,” Boyd said. “There's just a lot of inconsistency."

While some kids struggle with at-home learning, others are doing just fine.

Jessica Morris-Jeter, who also lives in Johnston, has two kids at home.

Morris-Jeter said they’re doing fine in school, but said her kids miss the socialization aspect of school.

She said it’s especially impacting her 4-year-old daughter, who is in preschool.

"One of the main factors preschool for my kids is socialization,” Morris-Jeter said. “You just can't have that on Zoom. For a four-year-old, you can't have that."

Morris-Jeter pointed out she’s in a good situation for remote learning because she can stay home with her kids.

"We are in a lucky position where I stay at home right now,” Morris-Jeter said. “I know that many parents are not able to be in that position. I understand that it's a lot more difficult for other parents."

Morris-Jeter said she's okay with the kids staying home until case counts decline in the county. 

The 'COVID slide'

Literacy screening scores down 6% in Johnston 

Data from September showed literacy scores were down in the Johnston school district among K-3 graders.

Last year, 76% of the students met benchmark scores and were shown to be adequately progressing.

This year, that number dropped to 70%.

"When the learning of those skills is interrupted, as it was in the spring due to the pandemic, it is not surprising that students had not yet reached those fall benchmark scores that we look to as indicators of progress, growth and achievement," said Michelle Crannell, language arts and social studies learning coordinator at Johnston at Community School District.

Crannell said at Johnston, they're working to teach skills that should have been learned last year in tandem with this year's lessons. 

Study: Students across nation score 5-10% lower in math

Learning gaps appeared in schools nationwide this year. 

NWEA, an assessment non-profit, found reading scores stayed pretty stagnant, but math was a problem area for 3-8 graders. 

Each grade level had lower math assessment scores. The dips ranged from 5-10%, depending on the grade level. 

"Our results can kind of give parents more license to talk about math with their kids, even in those really casual ways," NWEA senior research scientist Karyn Lewis said. "Looking at grocery prices, 'how much do the bananas cost per pound, so how much would that cost overall?' Doing that kind of like small, everyday math with students and young people to help make math for more a part of the conversation."

Iowa literacy screening scores down, officials say not to panic

In Iowa, literacy scores were the only assessment available to look at. 

When comparing literacy screening scores from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020, kids scored 10% lower statewide. 

The most significant change, a 21% drop among first graders. 

RELATED: Literacy screening scores down 21% among Iowa 1st graders

"Ten percent is a problem as a drop in achievement, but it also can be made back up if [you think about the cause] being a lack of prior instruction,” Iowa Department of Education Deputy Director Amy Williamson said.

Williamson said while it’s not ideal to see drops in performance, a positive is the largest drop that happened was among Iowa's youngest learners.

“We know intervening early is the key to success," Williamson said. "Knowing this information as early as possible is good and Iowa educators know how to close these gaps."

Williamson said the state has been researching how to close learning gaps for about five years now. 

"Even these gaps that we're looking at because of learning loss can be closed really quickly, within the span of a school year, if we are using appropriate course instruction and interventions," Williamson said. "We have a lot of good research behind that."

How to help your kids

If your child is struggling with reading, Crannell has a few recommendations:

  • Maintain a positive attitude
  • Encourage independence through a consistent routine
  • Have open communication with your child’s teacher

Crannell said engaging with your child while they’re working to gain literacy skills is very important. She suggests asking your kids what they’re reading about and listening to them as they practice reading at home.

The Iowa Department of Education has resources available to help families navigate remote learning. Click/tap here to access them. 

Local 5 is looking to talk to more parents of school-aged kids. What is difficult about remote learning for your family? What works well? Email news@WeAreIowa.com or text us at 515-457-1026 to weigh in.