Despite massive infusions of federal COVID dollars into the state’s poorest schools and a return to normal schooling, the gap between math scores in rich and poor districts – which widened significantly during the pandemic – continues to grow.
A study released on Wednesday from the Harvard Center for Policy Research found that Connecticut students in grades 3 through 8 regained, on average, a little less than two months of lost instruction in mathematics.
But that did little to address the seven months of math instruction that these same students lost during the pandemic. An earlier report from the same organization found that Connecticut had the fifth largest loss in math instruction out of 30 states surveyed.
And the research shows this gain — like the original pandemic loss — was not equal across school districts.
Districts like Hartford, New Haven and New London made only marginal gains in mathematics last year, the equivalent of a few weeks of instruction. This was after losing between nine and 15 months of math instruction during the pandemic, the equivalent of an entire school year or more.
In contrast, districts like Lyme-Old Lyme, Westport and Darien regained about two months of instruction, after having lost about half a year of math instruction during the pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, Connecticut had wide gaps in standardized math and reading scores correlating to a student’s socioeconomic status. The year before the pandemic, about 71 percent of students who are not eligible for free or reduced lunch were meeting the state standard for reading, compared with 36 percent of students who were eligible. The trend was similar in math — 64 percent of higher-income students were meeting the state standard in 2018-19, compared to 28 percent of low-income students.
Meghan Staples, a professor at UConn’s Neag School of Education, told CT Examiner that Connecticut has one of the largest income gaps in the country, which could be exacerbating the academic achievement gaps, along with other problems aggravated by the pandemic, like teacher shortages.
Particularly regarding mathematics, she said, having a good teacher or tutor is critical. When there are shortages, as there are now, richer districts have a distinct advantage over poorer districts because they can afford to pay more.
“You can literally go to move to a school 3 miles away — so you’re not changing your commute — and you can get $10,000 to $15,000 more per year. And that’s very hard to not notice as a teacher,” said Staples.
Reading scores in Connecticut were less affected by the pandemic, but also showed less recovery last year. Overall, students lost an average of about half a year of reading instruction between 2019 and 2022 — the fourth largest loss of all states surveyed.
But last school year, reading scores in both rich and poor districts continued to decline, although marginally.
The conclusion: over the course of the last four years, students in poor districts have lost more than half a year of instruction in math and reading compared to their peers in richer towns.
The effect of COVID funds
Thomas Kane, one of the primary researchers on the report, said it’s not clear whether the amount of federal coronavirus relief dollars the states have spent correlates with their academic recovery. So far, Connecticut has spent about two-thirds of the over $1.7 billion it received from the federal government, leaving about $529 million that must be spent before September.
In the report, Kane suggests schools increase seating in their summer learning programs — which have been shown to give children an extra quarter year in academic recovery — and to contract with tutoring programs and after-school programs for the following year.
“Nationally, it’s like $51 billion as of last month had not yet been spent. Districts have plans for that money. They should reconsider their plans and allocate more of the money to academic recovery, toward things like tutoring and after-school and summer learning. Now is their opportunity to do it,” he said. “There’s not going to be another federal package.”
He also recommended that parents be notified when their children are performing below grade level.
“From the beginning, we’ve just been struck by the disconnect between the polls where parents report that their kids have haven’t lost any ground and the data on kids seeing big losses in many places, and I think that just reveals the fact that parents are not being told when their child is below grade level,” Kane told CT Examiner.
He also suggested that the state Department of Education make a list of all students who graduated from high school since the pandemic began but never enrolled in college.
Staples said the best way to help students in mathematics, particularly at the middle school level, was to have teachers highly trained in concepts like proportional reasoning and equations, and to increase the school time dedicated to teaching math. At the high school level, she said, students should be able to learn math that would be relevant to whatever career they were considering.
Retention and environment, Staples added, were also critical. New teachers, she said, needed to be transitioned into school environments and given the opportunity to grow.
In a statement, the state Department of Education acknowledged the magnitude of the damages created by the pandemic and the ongoing lag in achievement levels.
“This new report continues to remind us of the devastating effects of the pandemic on the achievement of all students, and especially those from high need backgrounds. CSDE has already reported in both 2022 and 2023 that despite some recovery, achievement and attendance lag pre-pandemic levels, and that the pace of learning slowed in 2022-23,” the statement read.
The department also said Connecticut is already investing in programs intent on improving recovery, including curriculum models aligned with the science of reading, high-dosage tutoring programs in middle school mathematics, increased after-school offerings, summer programming and the LEAP home visiting program to lower chronic absenteeism.
The statement added that they were learning from several “schools of distinction” in districts across the state that were recovering at faster rates, despite serving a large population of high-needs students.
State Rep. Jeff Currey, D-East Hartford, chair of the Education Committee, told CT Examiner that the legislature had added $150 million to the biennial budget last session, designed to kick in when the federal coronavirus relief funds ran out.
“The intent around the [state] funding is to be able to come in and fill that gap, so that we don’t lose a lot of the programming and the people that we likely should have all had anyways before the virus, because these problems are not new problems,” he said.
In future years, Currey said he expected there to be further conversations about what education funding would look like after 2025.
“Unfortunately, we live in two-year budget cycles and aren’t always thinking long term in terms of the resources that are going to be needed to bridge some of these gaps, specifically in education,” he said. “The longer we go without addressing them, the unintended consequence of that is all of the great workforce initiatives that we have built up around the state … simply will be for naught, because you aren’t going to have children graduating from our public school systems prepared and ready to fill those jobs.”
Of the 30 states the report surveyed, only one — Alabama — had returned to pre-pandemic levels in mathematics by last spring, while three — Illinois, Mississippi and Louisiana — had returned to pre-pandemic reading levels. These states were also the ones that lost the least amount of ground during the pandemic.