3 ways leaders can begin to reverse a widening achievement gap

The highest and lowest achievers in a typical fifth-grade classroom pre-COVID were separated by as many as seven grade levels. That has widened

The achievement gap between high and low achievers is wider today than it was in 2019, newly released data shows.

Spring 2022 reading and math test scores from more than eight million students in grades 3 through 8 are more variable than they were in spring 2019, about a year before COVID upended the education system, according to NWEA, the nonprofit testing and research company.

This means there is a bigger gap between students than there had been pre-COVID, and the divide “is primarily driven by a widened distance between low and high achievers given students with lower achievement experienced larger initial impacts at the onset of the pandemic and less improvement during 2021-22,” NWEA says.

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“Purchasing a new tutoring or curricular solution isn’t enough; leaders must make deep investments in teachers that enhance their knowledge and skills, and create the sustained conditions that make classrooms equitable places to learn,” said Chase Nordengren, NWEA’s principal research lead for Effective Instructional Strategies. “The continued impact of the pandemic requires focus, new strategies, creative solutions, and collaboration between educators and families.”

NWEA’s researchers compared results from testing that took place from 2019-20 through 2021-22 to results from 2016-17 through 2018-19. The data show, for example, that the highest and lowest achievers in a typical fifth-grade classroom pre-COVID were separated by as many as seven grade levels. That range only widened during the pandemic.

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“Continuing to understand which students were harmed the most and the magnitude of their unmet needs will keep the focus on them as a priority to ensure appropriate interventions are provided,” said Dr. Karyn Lewis, one of the authors of the new study and director of NEWA’s Center for School and Student Progress

To tackle this widening achievement gap, NWEA recommends:

  1. Balancing between on-grade and off-grade learning to maximize growth. To ensure all students have access to grade-level materials, teachers must not only have a thorough understanding of their own grade level’s academic standards but be familiar with standards one-to-two grade levels above and below.
  2. Using real-time checks. Formative assessments will give teachers a better understanding of how—and if—students have mastered academic content. This will allow educators to make quick instructional adjustments to meet the needs of all learners.
  3. Supporting teachers by reinforcing their expertise and skills. Professional development should highlight the essential role that teachers play in students’ lives.

Here’s how one diverse district is responding: Schiller Park School District 81 in Illinois has created more flexible group instruction time across all content areas, Superintendent Kimberly Boryszewski said.

“Post-pandemic, this is more important than ever. Learning gaps across grade levels have created conditions in schools that demand educators meet students at their individual instructional levels to target their personal academic needs,” she concluded.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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