Students in one metro Omaha district made solid academic gains last school year despite pandemic disruptions, giving officials there hope for a quicker recovery from COVID-19 learning losses.
Spring testing in the Millard Public Schools revealed that reading scores, on average, rebounded to nearly pre-pandemic levels.
Math scores were slightly but not significantly lower than two years ago.
But what Millard officials find really encouraging is that the amount of growth in math during the school year was surprisingly strong.
“In spite of the disruption, the kids moved forward as much as they would have in a normal year, and in some grade levels more,” said Heather Phipps, associate superintendent of education services.
She attributes the growth to a “relentless focus on math and reading this year.”
She said Millard is several years into a focus on standards-based instruction and assessment, making sure teachers understand the standards and what they’re supposed to teach. That effort had already put student achievement on an upward trajectory before the pandemic struck, she said.
“To be coming out of the pandemic really pretty much where we were in spring of ‘18-19 is very good,” Phipps said. “I feel very confident that we are rolling to fall in a good place, and that it speaks well to the work our teachers did this year with students.”
The results are from the district’s spring administration of the MAP Growth test. Millard students in grades kindergarten through eighth take the test three times a year: fall, winter and spring. The test wasn’t given during spring 2020 because school buildings were closed.
In math testing this spring, students in kindergarten and seventh grade scored higher than Millard students who took the test in spring 2019. Students in first through sixth and eighth grades scored lower, but by the thinnest margin in some grades.
In reading, fourth grade scores were higher than 2019. The remaining grades were lower, but, again, by narrow margins.
The student growth has Millard officials believing the district can start next school year without a huge learning gap to make up.
The MAP Growth test allows educators to see if students are making progress as expected in a normal year.
For the 2020-21 school year, all grade levels exceeded expected growth against pre-COVID-19 national norms in math. In reading, kindergarten and second through fifth grades met national projections.
When schools across the nation closed abruptly in March 2020, schools scrambled to provide remote learning, which was often makeshift with limited success.
When Nebraska elementary and middle school students took the MAP Growth last fall, it was clear they had made less academic progress than normal in math. Reading performance dipped slightly or in some districts held its own.
Nebraska’s slide generally mirrored a national downward trend on the MAP Growth test.
School officials had been optimistic that learning gaps could be narrowed during the school year.
“We were really happy with the results,” school board President Linda Poole said.
Poole said she had been expecting a larger gap that would take longer to close.
Poole said the gains show that the systems the district put in place to help struggling kids worked.
She said staff members did a great job reaching out to families and kids and helping to fill in the gaps.
Poole said educators were careful about the curriculum, how they delivered it, making sure they identified the strengths and weaknesses of kids and delivered what they needed.
District officials, meantime, tried to keep COVID in the background, she said.
“We knew it was something we needed to address, but we didn’t let it be the big roadblock,” she said.
The gains came despite a disrupted learning environment that saw 1,068 of the district’s 23,000 students test positive for the disease. Students logged a total of 51,775 days in quarantine, the district said.
News of the gains came as the district kicked off its summer school last week with an emphasis on catching kids up from the COVID-19 slide.
During the school year, Millard offered five-day, in-person instruction with remote as an option. The district started the school year with 4,197 students learning remotely. By the end of the year that number had shrunk to 1,483 as teachers urged struggling students to come back to the classroom, and concerns about the safety of schools waned.
Another data point, reflecting high schoolers’ success, improved in the second half of the year.
The rate of high school students failing courses fell in the spring, though the rate remained at a level higher than before the pandemic, according to the district.
Data from last winter further showed that during the fall semester, middle and high school students experienced higher than normal course-failure rates, especially among remote learners.
The percentage of high school students learning remotely who failed two or more courses fell from 32.6% last fall to 21.6% in the spring. For in-person learners, the percentage fell from 11.4% to 9.9%.
Before the pandemic, the spring 2019 course-failure rate was 8.4%, and the fall 2019 rate was 8.9%.
As a part of summer school, Millard is offering a credit-recovery camp.