For younger metro Atlanta students, pandemic added to math woes

A study finds that Atlanta area students lost more ground in math than in reading, especially younger students, and that summer school can help but more intervention is necessary. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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A study finds that Atlanta area students lost more ground in math than in reading, especially younger students, and that summer school can help but more intervention is necessary. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Younger students in three metro Atlanta school districts suffered greater academic declines than slightly older peers during the pandemic, a new study says.

Students who were in elementary school when classes shifted online due to COVID-19 performed worse in those districts than students who started the pandemic in middle school, researchers at Georgia State University found.

Math remained a weak spot for the younger kids.

“While we saw both reading and math really impacted when we looked last year, reading in general has really rebounded for these students and math has not,” said Maggie Reeves, senior director of Georgia Policy Labs in GSU’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.

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The new research follows a similar GSU study last year. It looks at scores on the national iReady and MAP Growth tests in Clayton and Fulton counties as well as in a third school district that chose to remain anonymous. It tracks the national ranking of each student’s scores over four years, from the fall of 2017 through last fall.

The local results generally follow national findings that saw already-struggling students performing worse through the pandemic. Students from low-income households, on average, usually do worse on tests. South Fulton, for instance, where poverty rates are higher, did worse than north Fulton in this latest research. Clayton also scored lower.

Schools that returned in-person sooner typically did better.

The authors recommend mandatory “high-intensity, small-group tutoring” during the regular school day, targeted at the students who need it most.

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The authors said summer school alone can’t repair the damage because the students who need it most are the least likely to attend. Also, good teachers are hard to find for the summer, and it’s difficult to match the curriculum to what students were learning in the spring.

“Summer school also can be effective but there are so many ways in which it’s hard to do well,” Reeves said.

Fulton officials said other researchers they’ve worked with found that the district’s summer school program has been an effective complement to a suite of interventions, known as the “Bridge to Success.”

Clifford Jones, chief academic officer for Fulton schools, said summer school can be part of the solution along with weekend school and intense tutoring. “A lot of the time, they just need more time,” he said of students.

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Fulton’s summer enrollment has grown from about 6,000 before the pandemic to 8,000 last year and 11,000 this year. The lowest-scoring students on the state Milestones tests are automatically enrolled though parents can opt out.

Fulton also tutors some underperforming students three days a week, in 30-minute sessions with three students per teacher.

Clayton is taking a similar approach, using the data to “drill into the specific needs” of students and to target interventions, such as tutoring and summer literacy and math programs.

The new research confirmed what Clayton officials expected, the district said in a statement: “disparities prior to the pandemic have widened.”

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One metro Atlanta elementary school teacher said the math findings are consistent with what she’s seen. Intensive tutoring seemed impractical to her.

“You have tons of teachers already quitting and not signing their contracts, so where are they going to find the tutors?” she asked. The fourth grade math and science teacher asked to remain anonymous out of concern for her career.

The use of national, voluntary tests like MAP open a window into student performance that closed when states skipped mandatory tests during the pandemic. Even this year, when the federal government required that states return to testing, the participation rate was lower than normal. Still, the students who did take the Georgia Milestones generally did worse.

“I think the good news here,” Reeves said, “is that reading seems to be rebounding and that students who were doing well compared to national averages before the pandemic seem to be doing fine academically speaking.”