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Imagine that you go in for your annual medical bloodwork and something alarming turns up: say, your platelets are through the roof, a possible indicator of cancer. Does your doctor say, “Let’s wait til next year and test again” or do they intervene immediately to ensure you receive proper treatment?
Dumb question, right?
Now let’s move from imagination to reality: Zearn, a non-profit math program used by 25% of all U.S. elementary school students, had meticulously documented the drop in math proficiency during school closures from the COVID-19 pandemic, finding that students enrolled in low-income schools were hit harder than students enrolled in higher-income schools. But last month Zearn’s CEO Shalinee Sharma released a new report that shows something just as alarming as a scary lab test result: Instead of increased math proficiency correlating with in-class instruction, the gaps were bigger in places where COVID-19 infections were highest, even with open schools, in New Jersey and elsewhere.
Why? Students attending low-income districts aren’t logging onto their Zearn program.
That’s new: From October to December 2021 participation among students from all socio-economic strata was similar. But this January amid the Omicron surge, participation among students who attend low-income schools dropped 13%, compared to a drop of only 2% among students who attend schools in wealthier districts.
From the report:
The result is that while schools are open amidst Omicron surges, students from low-income communities are missing critical instructional time. While Omicron is everywhere, its inequitable effects are not. Students who missed the most learning during the 2020-21 school year are now missing the most again.
This new data points to a troubling trend, what Sharma calls “a new and significant impact to their learning” for students in low-income schools while “students in more affluent communities are largely unaffected.” She believes low-income districts are experiencing higher student and teacher absentee rates; in addition, we haven’t fully solved the digital divide.
We see this in New Jersey, where Zearn’s program is widely used because it is fully aligned with our Student Learning Standards.
NJ already had a big math proficiency gap between low-income and higher-income students, 24-28 points depending on grade-level, according to 2019 NAEP assessments. (NAEP, also known as “the nation’s report card,” uses eligibility for free and reduced lunch as their metric for establishing income levels.) Zearn tells us that these gaps will widen because of the low participation rates during reversions to remote instruction. It’s not the school closures per se, but the low participation rates.
What will this mean for New Jersey’s low-income students to lose even more ground in math?
Because they have already lost a lot.
On the Start Strong assessments given in the Fall, which all NJ 4th-10th grade students took, 49.3% of fourth graders scored in the lowest category, “Strong Support May Be Needed.” The math learning losses were most severe among Black and Brown students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities: 74.3% of Black fourth graders and 69.7% of Hispanic fourth graders likely need “strong support.”*
When Murphy Administration’s Department of Education released the data from those Start Strong assessments, State Senator Teresa Ruiz, the outgoing chair of the Senate Education Committee who is now Senate Majority Leader, commented,
I am heartbroken, disappointed and outraged. I am not sure people realize what is at stake here. But the truth is these are numbers we have seen before. If you don’t think this is a crisis … then I don’t know what else will make it more alarming than this…I don’t want numbers anymore…What I want is what are we doing about it.
So what do we do about it this crisis? Do we ignore the precious real-time data (often academic proficiency results are a year late and a dollar short) and wait til next year for new test results? Or do we act now to ensure that all children, regardless of income, have the opportunity to master essential knowledge that schools are responsible for providing? After all, money is not an issue, not with the Biden Administration’s $2.8 billion COVID emergency grant to New Jersey’s K-12 schools, and there are research-based interventions that will help students in low-income schools begin the process of catching up.
But unless we act quickly—just as we would with a worrisome blood test result—our children who have been denied learning will fall further and further behind. Nothing could be more unjust.
*It’s worth noting here that the Murphy Administration has turned down two-thirds of expansion plans for urban public charter schools where student proficiency rates in math tend to be much higher than in traditional districts. For instance, in Newark district schools only 26% of students reach proficiency targets in math. At Newark’s North Star Academy, part of the Uncommon Schools network, 65% of students reach those targets. Yet Murphy’s DOE just denied a 300-seat expansion to North Star in a decision that NJ Public Charter School Association Executive Director Harry Lee called “bad public policy and a crushing blow to low-income students of color throughout New Jersey.