How the state can improve after the COVID-19 pandemic

This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Utah students’ test scores are closing the gap after falling during the pandemic, but the state needs to aim higher than the 2019 benchmark, educators said.

“We were shipwrecked in 2020, but it was already a leaky boat,” John Arthur said Thursday morning during a panel discussion on post-pandemic learning loss at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City.

The panel discussed pandemic-related learning loss and possible solutions. They broadly agreed that while COVID-19 has caused a decline in educational outcomes, Utah cannot treat learning loss as a pure pandemic problem.

Arthur, who teaches sixth grade in the Salt Lake City School District and was Utah’s teacher of the year in 2021, said the status quo before the pandemic was not worthy of the student.

His students had struggled with learning disabilities throughout his decade in the classroom, he said, so going back to 2019 levels wasn’t good enough.

Sarah Reale, who represents District 5 on the Utah Board of Education, agreed that the state must adapt to a changing student population.

Utah needs to create more comprehensive student services and stop assuming every child has a home support system, Reale said.

It takes communities working together to address equity issues and gaps in educational outcomes, said State Assemblyman Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan. Pulsipher is co-chair of the Legislature’s Public Education Budget Committee.

In the spring of 2020, schools across the country transitioned to distance learning and remained closed or partially closed for the remainder of the school year as some online courses were offered.

Schools in Utah opened earlier than many other states, but quarantines, social distancing, increased stress and other factors hampered the ability to teach and learn.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hailey Bowen, a fourth grader at Long View Elementary, and her sister Kate Bowen, a ninth grader at Hillcrest Junior High, complete online schoolwork Wednesday, January 13, 2021 at their home in Murray.

Educational outcomes in Utah and across the country nationwide declined.

Utah saw a “relatively smaller” decline than other states, said Andrea Thomas Brandley, senior education analyst at Gardner.

Brandley pointed to an assessment by The Nation’s Report Card that showed that while Utah experienced noticeable declines in fourth-grade math and reading between 2022 and 2022, it was one of 17 states to experience a decline in eighth-grade reading skills in eighth grade could avoid, and the only state that avoided a significant decline, decline in math in eighth grade.

But test results are still below 2019 levels, she said.

Data from the Utah State Board of Education, based on Gardner’s analysis, shows a decline in English proficiency in arts, math, and science in third through eighth graders between 2019 and 2021.

In 2022, all three skill rates saw increases, but not enough to close the gap.

Math saw its biggest decline in 2021 and biggest rise in 2022, but was still 3.7 percentage points below 2019 rates.

Readiness Improvement Success Empowerment (RISE) competency rates overall remained at least 4.7% below 2019 levels.

Learning loss varied across population groups.

For example, students who identified as White, Asian, or more than one race experienced smaller declines in RISE proficiency ratings than the national average in all three subject areas. But students who identified as Native American, Hispanic, Latino, and Pacific Islander had lower proficiency scores than the national average in all subjects.

And students with economic disadvantage experience performance declines in English, math and science two to three times greater than the national average.

Federal funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the American Rescue Plan Act, and other pandemic relief funds could help, Brandley said.

Utah received just over $1 billion through COVID-19 aid to education.

Most of this would go directly to schools, Brandley said, and there was scope for usage. ARPA dollars have a requirement that 20% of the money must go towards amending learning losses, she said.

According to Pulsipher, the state also provided more funds for education this year and flexibly passed them on to the districts in large pots.

More resources for teachers are key, Reale said.

“They are asked to do everything,” she said. “When you’re given unrealistic expectations and then you get punished for not meeting those expectations, that’s not a good place.”

Policymakers need to trust educators and treat them as trained professionals, Reale said.

Arthur added that people need to recognize that Utah’s relatively low learning loss is a testament to what teachers have accomplished during the pandemic and that the state does not give enough credit to those efforts.

Teachers don’t need further training, he said, but rather a chance to breathe, rest and prepare for the next leg of the journey.

Justin Scaccy

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