Adilene Ramirez was within the eighth grade when the COVID-19 pandemic despatched her and each different scholar residence for the higher a part of a 12 months. She began Moorpark Excessive College from residence, on Zoom, and wasn’t again on campus full-time till her sophomore 12 months.
As quickly as she returned, her grades took a success, and previously 12 months she’s labored exhausting to get her GPA above a 3.0.
“After we had been doing Zoom faculty, the academics would grade the whole lot as simple as they’ll,” the 17-year-old junior stated earlier this month. “I used to be so used to only trying the whole lot up on the web. … It was an enormous adjustment once we got here again.”
Ramirez isn’t alone.
At faculties throughout Ventura County, and across the state and the nation, college students have struggled — academically, socially, emotionally — since returning to campus. Lecturers, directors and college students report extra issues with habits and extra points with psychological well being than earlier than the pandemic. Tutorial struggles are sometimes simpler to measure, and in 2022, standardized take a look at scores had been down, usually dramatically, in comparison with the final pre-pandemic testing in 2019.
What’s also known as “studying loss” — educators often desire “interrupted studying” — was not evenly distributed: Scores tended to say no most amongst faculties and scholar teams that already had decrease scores, akin to low-income college students or faculties with giant populations of immigrant households. In the meantime, faculties and college students that began off with comparatively increased scores usually confirmed little, if any, decline.
“It is a nationwide image of main decline,” stated Li Cai, a statistician and professor of training at UCLA. “It must be an enormous shock and an enormous wakeup name for directors. … What’s hanging isn’t just the top-line drop in common proficiency charges, it’s the unequal influence that’s being felt. If you have a look at who’s impacted probably the most, it was the faculties and districts that had been already struggling. It’s been a catastrophe for fairness.”
‘We’re back to the 1990s’
For example, in the Hueneme Elementary School District, 81.7% of students are from low-income families and 43.8% are classified as “English learners,” which means they speak a language other than English at home and need additional help with English to keep up in school.
In 2022, the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress — CAASPP, the state’s main standardized test, given to students from third to eighth grades and in 11th grade — 23.9% of the Hueneme district’s students scored at or above the state standard for English language arts, and 13% met or exceeded the standard for math. Those scores were down significantly from their already low levels in 2019, when 29.7% of students met the English standard and 17.5% met the math standard.
In the Oak Park Unified School District, 12.1% of students are from low-income households and 4.6% are English learners. That district’s scores on California’s major standardized test hardly changed during the pandemic. In 2022, 81.2% of students met the test’s standard for English language arts, almost exactly the same as in 2019, and 71.1% met the math standard, a drop of 2 percentage points since 2019.
Countywide, among all students, 45.1% met the state standard for English in 2022 and 31.2% met the standard for math. The pass rate for the English test was down 3.3 percentage points from 2019 and the pass rate for math dropped 5.7 percentage points.
Even flat test scores from 2019 to 2022 wouldn’t be a great sign. These scores were rising in most schools, slowly but steadily, up until the pandemic, Cai said.
“Nationwide, about 1 in 3 kids are proficient in reading and about 1 in 4 in math,” he said. “That’s been the case for the longest time, and we have very, very slowly improved and very slowly closed some of the gaps. We were on an upward trajectory and the pandemic erased everything, and we’re back to the 1990s.”
‘What do you expect from us?’
In Ventura County, the achievement gaps are wide and often widening. In 2022, students not classified as economically disadvantaged were more than twice as likely as their economically disadvantaged classmates to meet the state English standards on the CAASPP test, and three times as likely to meet the math standards. White students were about twice as likely as Latino students to meet the English standards and almost three times as likely to meet the math standards.
The intersection of those factors produces stark inequalities. Just 27.1% of economically disadvantaged Latino students in Ventura County met the English standards last year, and 13.6% met the math standards. Among white students who were not economically disadvantaged, 71.1% met the English standards and 56.7% met the math standards.
“The achievement gap is something that as educators we’ve been wrestling with since I’ve been in education,” said Kelli Hays, Moorpark Unified School District’s superintendent and a longtime educator. “There’s no doubt that COVID exacerbated that gap. Our most challenged students, our most needy students, our English learners, our students in poverty, those students had more difficulty in an at-home learning environment.”
Cai said it’s clear to him that the pandemic and the time spent in online school explains the recent decline in test scores.
“If we imagine a parallel world where there’s no pandemic, obviously kids would be continuing on their path to achievement,” he said.
Rene Valencia, a junior at Moorpark High, spent more than a year going to school online, and said he “really didn’t learn anything” in that time.
“You have so many distractions,” he said. “You’re at home, you have your TV, you have your phone right in front of you. What do you expect from us?”
Valencia knows he had it easier than a lot his peers. He has his own room with a desk and a reliable internet connection, and a mom who was home with him if he needed help.
Other students had to log into class from a kitchen table, a shared bedroom or even a closet. Or they were home alone while their parents worked at in-person jobs. Or they weren’t online at all, because they had to take jobs of their own to support their families. Or they were dealing with death and disability from serious COVID cases in their families.
Lorelle Dawes, an administrator with the Ventura Unified School District, was principal at Cabrillo Middle School in Ventura when the pandemic began. That school, she said, “has a very bifurcated demographic,” and the pandemic made that obvious. The school gave laptops and internet hot spots to students who needed them, but there wasn’t anything the school could do to truly level the remote school playing field.
“We would have kids who, while the school was closed, they’d take a road trip and visit all the national parks, and do their distance learning from there,” Dawes said. “Then we had kids in group homes or foster homes.”
This bifurcation — the difference in resources and environments that kids had during remote instruction — could explain why math scores have declined more than English scores, Cai said.
“Families can do more outside of school in helping kids to read, but math is more school-based instruction,” he said. “Math has a certain structure, and kids benefit from going about it systematically, in a classroom.”
But the pandemic aside, Cai said, math is a longstanding weakness for the U.S. educational system.
“If you look at international comparative assessments, reading we’re around the middle of the pack, and math achievement is the laggard, starting in about the fourth grade,” he said. “As kids get older, our math curriculum is miles wide, but inches deep, as compared to countries like South Korea, Finland or Singapore, where they tend to focus on certain core concepts and really develop proficiency in those areas.”
Tackling the problem
Trying to fix “learning loss” is perhaps the primary focus of the educational system in 2023. The federal and state governments have allocated billions of dollars in extra school funding for that purpose. Ventura County’s 20 school districts received $103.7 million in “learning loss mitigation funds” in the 2020-21 fiscal year alone, according to figures provided by the Ventura County Office of Education.
Some of that money is funding expanded after-school programs and summer sessions, known in California as the Expanded Learning Opportunities Program or ELOP. Dawes runs those programs for Ventura Unified, as director of expanded learning, a new position this school year.
More than 1,000 students in Ventura alone are attending the new state-funded, after-school programs, including 780 elementary school students. The program includes art, music, physical activities, field trips and academic tutoring.
So far, it’s open to all students from certain groups: low-income families, English learners, foster children or those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Teachers have also been offering it to other students who need extra academic help.
“I don’t think expanded learning is the be-all and end-all, but I think it’s an important contributor to closing the achievement gaps,” Dawes said.
Schools have also pumped more funding into counseling, of both the academic and mental health varieties.
Many elementary schools now have full-time counselors. Before the pandemic, districts would rotate one counselor among two, three or even five schools. And most high schools and some elementary and middle schools now have wellness centers, where students can find mental health support and connections to social services.
At Moorpark High, Ramirez and Valencia are both wellness peers, which means they are trained to help fellow students talk about and deal with stress, anxiety and other issues.
Alexandra Buenrostro-Rangel – “Ms. B” to students who frequent the Moorpark High wellness center – opened the center virtually in spring 2021 and on-campus that fall when classes returned to full-time, in-person instruction.
The center’s primary mission isn’t academic, but Buenrostro-Rangel, the counselor who runs the site, said she thinks it’s bound to have a positive effect on students’ grades and achievement.
“The way I see it is, how can a student worry about A-plus, B-plus, C when they don’t know if they can go home and have food on the table, or they’re worried about are my mom and dad going to be there when I get back?” she said. “I can’t wave a wand and give them free housing or anything, but if we can find resources for them that will put them more at ease and them focus more at school, that’s a big plus.”
Mental health and other social and emotional issues can’t be separated from students’ academic struggles, according to a wide range of education professionals in the county. They’re all the result of time spent in isolation during key developmental periods, away from teachers and classmates, and from the trauma of the pandemic.
“It’s even coming out in terms of student behaviors. Kids aren’t having that self-regulation that starts at home and carries through to schools,” said Sarah McLaughlin, a teacher at Junipero Serra Elementary in Ventura.
“The behaviors stood out to the point it made it hard to focus on academics,” Dawes said of the first year after students returned to campus, when she was principal at Cabrillo. “The behaviors were atrocious. Kids were throwing juice and milk, saying things that were inappropriate. There was an uptick in racist and sexist remarks. … I would look across the playground and think, oh, that’s a sixth-grade behavior, and then you get closer to the kids and you see they’re not sixth-graders, they’re eighth-graders.”
The students felt it, too.
“Lowkey, I felt like when I first came back sophomore year, I didn’t know how to talk to people,” Valencia said. “I was really quiet. I was scared to ask the teacher questions, because online, you could just look up the answer.”
Cai, the UCLA education professor, doesn’t doubt that “learning loss” is real, but some teachers and administrators point to other circumstances that might explain some of the drop in test scores. First, the state changed the CAASPP test itself, making it shorter than it was before the pandemic; because of that, the California Department of Education advises against comparing pre-pandemic and post-pandemic results.
And in some schools and districts, more students than usual skipped the test last year. Parents can choose to opt their children out of the tests, but schools are expected to test at least 95% of their students.
Jayne Suter, the Conejo Valley Unified School District’s assistant director for educational technology and student performance, said hundreds of her district’s high-achieving high school students skipped the test because they wanted to focus on the higher-stakes advanced placement exams. At Westlake High School, just 76% of 11th graders took the CAASPP math test in 2022, compared to 96% of the district’s fifth graders.
“If you have a test that doesn’t do much for you, or you’re studying for a test that will let you waive a college class, they’re going to say, ‘Mom and Dad, I don’t want to take this one,'” Suter said.
The educational and political worlds have debated the value of standardized tests for decades. Cai said the “benchmarks of proficiency are not set willy-nilly.” The tests are an important way to keep public schools accountable to the public.
Some teachers and administrators said the standardized tests do measure something real, though individual teachers have assessments that are more useful.
“If feels almost like there’s a lack of trust that a teacher could give an accurate assessment of where a child is performing in different areas,” said McLaughlin, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Serra and a board member of the Ventura Unified’s teachers union.
John Puglisi, superintendent of the Rio School District on the northern edge of Oxnard, said he sees the tests as a measure of what the political system says students should be learning.
“You want every kid to be able to achieve the academic requirements of the system they are in, whatever those are, because that is where the doors are left open for opportunity,” Puglisi said. “What we get paid to do is, wherever the politics sets the mark, we have to help kids achieve that, so they can have doors open for them and they can feel academically competent.”
Tony Biasotti is an investigative and watchdog reporter for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was made potential by a grant from the Ventura County Neighborhood Basis’s Fund to Help Native Journalism. Workers author Isaiah Murtaugh additionally contributed to this report.