Fighting achievement gaps beyond the school reopening debate

BY HANNAH MCCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/24/21

Without addressing the root of said disparities, education advocates warn a return to school could just return learning gaps to their previous rates — leaving marginalized groups of students behind, again.

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Fighting achievement gaps beyond the school reopening debate

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Laurie Paige teaches students both in-person and virtually on Monday at Chatham Central High School. Hybrid learning started for high schoolers in Chatham County Schools Feb. 1.
Laurie Paige teaches students both in-person and virtually on Monday at Chatham Central High School. Hybrid learning started for high schoolers in Chatham County Schools Feb. 1.
Staff photo by James Kiefer

Last week, my colleague Victoria Johnson introduced the first article in a new series we’ve been thinking a lot about over the last few months: equity in schools.

In recent months, many have heralded learning gaps as a reason to urgently return to in-person learning. Our reporting found that the gaps — one metric of many in measuring school equity — have worsened and widened over the course of the pandemic. But they weren’t created by it, or remote learning. Without addressing the root of said disparities, education advocates warn a return to school could just return learning gaps to their previous rates — leaving marginalized groups of students behind, again.

We must continue to fight for equity, and against achievement gaps, then, even after doing so no longer serves a reopening-schools agenda.

To be clear, plenty of parents, teachers and education experts have expressed legitimate concern for the apparent learning loss that’s taken place during remote learning. I’m not suggesting those people are incorrect in their assessments or deceitful in their intentions. Unfortunately and despicably, though, some people have never cared about achievement gaps — and often oppose any systemic change to address underlying inequities and barriers. They cite such data to demand schools reopen without expressing any commitment to addressing such gaps once they get what they want.

But equity in education ensures that every student — regardless of race, gender, sexuality, disabilities or background — has an equal chance for success, and that, advocates say, requires proactive and systemic policies before students enter school. In other words, real equity work requires planning and a commitment over time. And while it most often takes glaring evidence of inequity to move society to action, reactive education policies can only put a Band-Aid on the fractures we see at the surface, when we need policies that will uncover and destroy the injustice that pervades the very roots of the educational system.

Think about the most recent reports we’ve seen on the impact of COVID-19 and remote learning. Most — from Chatham to the national level — paint a grim picture of learning this year, indicating many students are falling behind based on previous year’s grades and testing score. At Durham Public Schools, a February report by The News & Observer in Raleigh showed that the percentage of middle school students with at least one failure in the first quarter went up for every group of students included in the data analysis, with more than 55% of students receiving at least one failing grade, up from about 31% the previous year. The same data showed that gaps between students groups also went up — with the gap between white and Hispanic students increasing by nearly 20 percentage points and the gap between white and Black students increasing by about 9.

Are those citing achievement gap data caused by the pandemic talking about those gaps? And if they are, are they doing so to bring attention to the students who always suffer most in times of crisis, or to exploit their struggles to prove their point? These gaps must be addressed in a meaningful and sustained way. But it’s also true these numbers don’t reflect the whole story.

More than 500 educators signed a March 22 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona stressing this point, raising concerns with a Feb. 22 letter from the U.S. Dept. of Education declining states’ requests for waivers of standardized testing in 2021. This move will “exacerbate inequality and will produce flawed data in the midst of the pandemic,” the letter says.

“The damage inflicted by racialized poverty on children, communities, and schools is devastating and daunting,” the letter says. “To that end, we understand why some civil rights groups have advocated for systems that use standardized tests to highlight inequalities. Whatever their flaws, test-based accountability systems are intended to spotlight those inequalities and demand they be addressed.

“But standardized tests also have a long history of causing harm and denying opportunity to low-income students and students of color, and without immediate action they threaten to cause more harm now than ever,” the letter continues.

Our ongoing equity series, with another installment to come next month, has and will cite such data from standardized tests. But in our reporting, we also hope to bring context to the underlying inequities that lead to such gaps in testing performance, and to the work being done to address them.

Standardized tests have long been cited as an inadequate measurement of student learning, and studies show testing methods often reflect and maintain racial inequity. Not to mention that tests, and studying for them, might not be the biggest priority for students as they continue to process and cope with living in a pandemic.

Under the stress of a global crisis, it is inevitable that an education system built to best serve affluent, English speaking and white families would continue to fail the marginalized students it is constitutionally bound to serve. While teachers and administrators certainly play an important role in working toward school equity, they alone cannot bear the brunt of righting such failures — especially not when these workers have been particularly devastated by the emotional and physical stress of working during COVID-19.

We cannot continue to point to achievement gap data as a reason why one school or district is bad and another is not. We cannot continue to use such data to support our isolated agendas while ignoring the decades of work by experts and advocates, often people of color. And we cannot, as journalists or as a society, be drawn to stories about such gaps when they receive lots of attention or clicks while failing to comprehensively report and discuss them the rest of the year.

If we truly care about ensuring an equal chance of success for every student, we must care about such disparities — and the conditions and policies that create them — all the time. And then, we must invest in the work that will extend long past the resumption of in-person learning.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.


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