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COVID-19 Has Impacted Student Academic Performance Nationally and at IPS

Update: This story was updated March 16, 2021.

COVID-19 has taken its toll on every aspect of education nationwide — from enrollment to finances and even academically. It’s evident the pandemic and the inconsistency of how often students are in person vs. remote has had an impact on student achievement this year. It’s a trend that’s happening in school systems across the country. 

Now, Indianapolis Public Schools is getting a first look at how the pandemic is affecting academic progress. In November and December 2020, IPS conducted its first round of NWEA testing. This state-aligned and nationally normed test measures the instructional level of each student in Grades 1–12 and their growth from year to year in math, reading and English Language Arts (ELA). 

Schools use NWEA results internally to track student progress, identify weak areas and implement targeted supports and interventions when necessary. It also projects success on ILEARN. 

“The test is normally administered three times a year to track growth at the beginning of the school year in August/September, in the middle of the school year in November/December, and at the end of the school year in April/May,” said Dr. Warren Morgan, IPS chief academic officer. “This year, since students started the school year on remote learning, this testing will only take place twice — in the middle of the school year and at the end.”

Nationally, academic growth is down and the same holds true for IPS. Simply put, students have not met the same academic growth expectations in math and ELA they met during the same time period a year ago. But, when comparing IPS students to other similar urban school districts, there are some bright spots. IPS is seeing a higher number of students moving up in achievement than those moving down compared to other districts who participated in the NWEA fall testing.

Digging a little deeper, however, there are some downward shifts within the district this school year compared to last school year. We’re seeing the biggest drops in math. If we look at whether students met their growth expectations, roughly 30% of our students are making the minimum growth required to meet expectations this school year. That’s down from nearly half of all students meeting minimum growth in math in the 2019–20 school year. In a district where we know our students are already often behind academically, slipping farther behind makes the gaps they need to close to be ready for the next grade, college or career much larger. 

“Even though growth is down, we should be cautious before we rush to judgement. It is early and we’re still trying to understand why students have struggled this year and whether or not they will be able to bounce back with strong classroom instruction and intervention supports,” said Morgan. 

Student grades are another indicator of academic progress. IPS has improved its failure rate since the beginning of this school year. The new grading policy, implemented at the start of this school year, is helping school leaders monitor and intervene for students since there is a consistent method for how the district grades. 

“With the start of the 2020–21 school year, Indianapolis Public Schools implemented a grading policy in anticipation of how COVID-19 would impact learning,” said Morgan. “We wanted to make sure students were given multiple opportunities to achieve. We also saw how much students and schools struggled to complete work in the spring of 2020 when the pandemic first hit. Our revised grading policy gives students multiple opportunities to achieve and better chances to pass a course. We implemented this policy to ensure consistency and equity across our schools.”

Though the district has work to do on decreasing the district failure rate, our rate at the end of the second quarter was not as high as other urban systems that do not have a consistent grading policy across schools.

Morgan points out a number of factors are likely at play when it comes to the downward shifts in academics, including the learning environment, number of transitions between in-person and remote learning, and the overall chaos of a school year during a pandemic. 

The district is putting together a number of supports and interventions to address academic shifts, including:

  • Continuing to share consistent, updated data with schools so instructional leaders can intervene early and often.
  • Focusing on freshman and sophomore ‘On Track’ metrics and interventions with high school students. In order to improve our graduation rate over time, we must start intervening early. Research shows that if a student has a high failure rate early on in high school, their chances at graduating are very low. 
  • Implementing Operation Graduation, which supports high school students who are off-track. This is an intervention to ensure students can retake classes they have failed in the past.
  • Finalizing summer school opportunities and criteria to ensure students have more time to accelerate learning.

Additionally, the district is in the process of planning research-based and proven acceleration strategies for potential launch during the 2021–22 school year, including:

  • High-Dosage Tutoring 
    • High dosage tutoring supplements (but does not replace) students’ classroom experiences. The tutoring is responsive to individual needs and complements students’ existing curriculum. 
    • Planning is being done with the following characteristics in mind: substantial time each week of required tutoring, sustained and strong relationships between students and their tutors, close monitoring of student knowledge and skills, alignment with school curriculum, and oversight of tutors to assure quality interactions.
  • Saturday Academies
    • Extended learning time interventions, including weekend acceleration academies staffed with highly effective teachers and some double dose math structures, have shown strong evidence of effectiveness in research and best practice.
    • This intervention is not simply about adding instructional time. Teachers could receive professional development in using extra instructional time to promote complex thinking through student-centered instructional practices.  
    • Planning is being done with the following characteristics in mind: alignment with school curriculum, IPS could provide transportation and food, intentional opportunities provided to students who need it the most. 

“We encourage parents to take advantage of every opportunity to help their student gain any learning enrichment offered to combat potential learning loss,” said Morgan.