Kansas schools starting to see evidence of learning loss, but most pressing is this year’s senior class
Now a year removed from the month in which schools closed their doors to students, Kansas school districts are starting to see some evidence, albeit still incomplete, of learning loss, education commissioner Randy Watson said.
Speaking to the Kansas State Board of Education on Tuesday morning, Watson pointed to interim data comparing early and mid-year test scores from some Kansas districts to the same period last year, which shows some slides in reading and math proficiency, particularly among at-risk and younger students.
But most pressing for Kansas educators, Watson said, is the senior class of 2021, which may be most at risk for lifetime learning effects from the pandemic.
Citing statistics on the national class of 2020, whose senior year was upended by the pandemic, Watson said anywhere between half and a third of that class of students ended up dropping plans to pursue post-secondary learning, depending on whether they were pursuing occupational, two-year or four-year degrees or certificates.
Most alarming, though, was the pandemic effect on student’s post-secondary education rates as separated by income levels, with poorer students by far more likely to drop their plans to pursue any kind of education or training after high school.
In Kansas specifically, enrollment at the state universities, technical colleges and community colleges overseen by the Kansas Board of Regents fell by 4% across the board, with in-state enrollment dropping by 6%. Overall enrollment at Kansas’s private colleges also fell by 6%, but those independent institutions saw a much higher, 21% drop in in-state enrollment.
While schools may be able to overcome and learning deficiencies with younger students who have years ahead of them in the K-12 system, that isn't the case with this year’s seniors, especially when students who take a “gap year” after high school rarely return to education.
“Will these kids come back?” Watson asked rhetorically. “I don’t know the answer to that question. We know that generally, when kids say, ‘I’m just going to take a year off,’ they rarely come back.”
In any case, much remains to be seen about this generation of graduating students, since no prior data exists on an event like COVID-19.
One early indicator of next year’s college-going rate, the completion rate of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, can particularly measure student interest in post-secondary education at lower income levels, since the form determines how much aid a college might give to a prospective student.
But that indicator shows 11% fewer Kansas students had completed the form by the end of February compared to the same time in 2020. Kansas ranked 33rd out of all 50 states with a completion rate of 36.7%.
KSDE and the regents have already started some efforts to boost Kansas’ completion rate back up, including implementing a statewide competition between Kansas high schools to have the best FAFSA-completion rates.
Looking to spring and beyond
Watson cautioned against reading too much into any of the individual data sets, as they only contain partial data from a small subset of state school districts that opted to take either external, paid assessments or the Kansas education department’s free, but voluntary, interim predictive assessments.
Neither of the data sets can yet paint “a complete picture” of the state of Kansas K-12 education, he said.
That fuller picture, then, will come from the spring state assessments, which will continue this year after federal regulators declined to waive testing requirements like they had last year, Watson said.
All Kansas districts will be required to have students take the state assessment in-person in April, since the test — which is heavily regulated and tied to state education benchmarks — must necessarily be administered by teacher and staff proctors. The state must also test 95% of its students, although federal regulators signaled state education departments may be given some limited latitude on that minimum.
Although virtually all Kansas districts have at least plans to return to in-person learning by the end of March, Watson acknowledged the mandatory in-person state testing requirement could pose an issue for some districts that will continue offering remote learning options to families.
Board member Melanie Haas, D-Overland Park, expressed concerns that some families may refuse to set foot inside school buildings, and that she wanted KSDE to help districts by providing messaging on how to convince parents to bring their children at least for the testing. Watson said the department would explore that as a possibility.
Based off of other preliminary indicators and testing data, Watson said the state board should anticipate seeing learning loss.
But that data will be an invaluable tool for school districts in fine-tuning any academic responses, which could include extended summer learning and enrichment opportunities.
Watson noted that about $500 million in existing federal COVID-19 relief for Kansas schools — and an expected additional $600 million from a third round of funding likely to be signed into law this week — is directed specifically at mitigating and recouping any learning loss students have experienced.
That overall funding, part of three separate federal bills, has various expiration dates, but in general, Watson said districts should count on being able to use millions of that federal funding through 2024 as they address any of the lingering effects of COVID-19 on learning.
He acknowledged that this year has been exhausting for Kansas’ educators, but he said that over the next two or three months, as well as the next two or three years, Kansas schools have an opportunity to make an academic impact they have always dreamed of making.