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Early data hints at some learning loss during pandemic, Kansas education commissioner says

Rafael Garcia
Topeka Capital-Journal
Early state testing data indicates Kansas students' proficiency in math and English language arts has dropped slightly during a year upended by the pandemic.

The pandemic’s toll on Kansas children’s learning is still being determined, but early, scattered data hints at some learning loss from the pandemic, education commissioner Randy Watson told the Kansas State Board of Education on Tuesday morning.

At the board’s first meeting — virtual because of COVID-19 restrictions — of its new term, Watson said data from the Kansas State Department of Education’s free but optional interim fall assessments show students had slight declines in correctly answering items on the tests.

Fewer districts this fall participated in the fall assessment, one of three optional precursors to the mandatory spring assessments, which Watson attributed to the sporadic operations of districts across Kansas as they have switched between remote and in-person learning. While the Department of Education granted districts the flexibility to administer the optional assessment to students at home, about 12,000 fewer students, or 27.5%, participated in fall 2020 compared to the previous year.

Beth Fultz, assistant director for assessments at KSDE, told The Topeka Capital-Journal that the fall interim assessment results were just a “first look” at student performance and couldn't yet definitively prove any loss in learning. Data from two additional interim assessments — one in process right now and another scheduled for early March — will provide a clearer picture of how students might perform on the state assessments in April, she said.

By federal and state law, Kansas schools must administer yearly spring assessments to students in third through eighth grades, as well as students in 10th grade. States like Kansas were able to obtain waivers from the testing requirement last March, shortly before the spring assessments were scheduled to take place.

No such waiver option has been offered so far this year, Fultz said, so KSDE has been working with individual districts to figure out how to continue to administer the yearly test, especially if a district is still in remote learning. Unlike the interim tests, the spring state assessments must follow rigid requirements, like an on-site proctor to monitor test administration, although Fultz said she expected districts could use federal COVID-19 relief funding to make test accommodations.

In any case, Fultz said the incoming presidential and U.S. Department of Education administration's could relax testing requirements, and she said KSDE would look to obtain such a waiver if it is offered.

Watson said he would return to the board in February with an initial draft of a plan to help Kansas schools start “coming back to normal” and mitigate any learning losses over the next several years. He said the department and board will need to pay particular attention to the class of students graduating this May, and what effect the pandemic has had on their ability to not only graduate but reach postsecondary success.

With vaccinations for teachers and school staff tentatively on the horizon, Watson said Kansas schools are now able to start thinking about how they will “transition out of the pandemic.” It was a more optimistic outlook for Kansas schools compared to the fall, when Watson urged educators to prepare for the pandemic to last well beyond the 2020-2021 school year.

In other business, Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice virtually swore in the five state board members who were elected or reelected to four-year terms in November. Newcomers to the board are Melanie Haas and Betty Arnold, both Democrats.

Representing District 2, which encompasses most of the Kansas City suburbs, Haas replaced Steve Roberts, who opted against reelection and instead launched a failed bid for the U.S. Senate.

For District 4 covering much of the Wichita metro area, Arnold ran against and defeated incumbent Kathy Busch, who was the board’s most recent chair. The board on Monday unanimously voted Jim Porter, District 9, and Janet Waugh, District 1, as chair and vice chair respectively.

Usually overlooked elections, the races for the Kansas State Board of Education took greater prominence in November following a few controversial votes on school reopening earlier in 2020. Half of the 10-person board is reelected every two years.

The board also voted 9-1 to accept a report from the School Mental Health Advisory Council, which included recommendations on how to implement several measures to stop school bullying.

Among those measures are creating clear policies against bullying, streamlining data reporting on bullying incidents and providing training for school staff to recognize and report bullying as legally required. 

Board member Michelle Dombrosky, District 3, was the sole vote against the report. She said that while she agreed with most of the report's principles, she was wary of creating an overtly cautious culture where children would be afraid of saying the wrong thing and being accused of bullying.