Comment: Learing loss still harms kids; legislators must act

State bills to increase tutoring and other help for students should be addressed in the next session.

By Matt Boehnke / For The Herald

In the months since our kids returned to the classroom, students, parents and teachers are clearly still dealing with the ramifications of pandemic policies that closed in-person classrooms and caused significant learning loss among Washington students.

For state lawmakers, the learning-loss issue goes beyond a critical challenge. It represents a moral imperative that cannot and should not be ignored.

Two recently released studies painted drastically different pictures of the situation.

Last month, the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction released data from the 2023 state assessment. The agency’s spin on learning-loss recovery is rosy. It claims students have recovered in math at “nearly all grades,” with the case being similar for elementary students in English language arts.

The report does contain a significant caveat, warning that “engagement, attendance, grades and classroom-based assignments and tests provide more detailed, timely and useful information about individual students’ progress to their families and educators.”

A more helpful analysis comes from a report titled “Student Achievement and the Pandemic: Analysis of Test Scores, Earnings, and Recovery Interventions,” published in September by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, an Olympia-based public-research group created by the Legislature and led by a bipartisan board.

The institute analyzed how student math and English language arts achievement changed during the covid-19 pandemic and found average math and English language arts test scores were lower in 2022 than average scores before the pandemic. Math scores plummeted even more. The most shocking decline occurred in middle-school grades and among female students, students of color, and low-income students.

This level of learning loss is projected to equal a $32,000 decrease in future earnings per student, an even more significant blow to those who can least afford another obstacle to success.

The institute’s report points to a system still in flux, where harm from learning loss is still being felt profoundly and in a way that disproportionately affects some students.

As a lawmaker, it is my job to listen, then look for common-sense solutions. I am especially focused on education, as it is vital to the economic well-being of our state and also designated by Washington’s constitution as state government’s paramount duty.

Continued attempts by Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal to minimize the damage done to our children during the pandemic are alarming and tone-deaf. Parents have every right to expect our state’s policymakers and educational leaders to take this issue seriously and help students recover.

So what can we do? The study recommends immediate steps to address this learning loss, primarily by increasing the availability of tutoring, summer-school programs and “double-dose” classes, in which students struggling to reach academic standards attend two class periods in a subject matter, instead of one.

This approach is in line with recommendations of Senate Republicans. Throughout the 2023 legislative session, Republicans pushed to devote state and federal funds to address learning loss through intense, focused tutoring and rigorous extended-learning programs. We advocated for creating Student Academic Achievement Grants to target learning loss, with funds for tutoring and comprehensive learning programs. We also suggested extending the school year by five days to provide additional in-class instructional time.

Unfortunately, the Democratic majority failed to act on Senate Bill 5248, sponsored by Senate Republican leader John Braun, R-Centralia, which would have implemented these ideas. It also turned down another of his measures (SB 5511) to put more funding toward increasing education equity and learning recovery among all Washington students, regardless of race or ZIP code.

When we return to Olympia in January, I will introduce legislation to increase tutoring opportunities, instruction time, workforce development and apprenticeship opportunities, as well as reduce barriers for low-income and minority communities.

It’s a mistake to sugarcoat the situation as the OSPI is. Or refuse to act, like the Democratic majority has. Without a comprehensive approach to addressing this learning-loss crisis, our children will be failed a second time. They deserve better.

State Sen. Matt Boehnke, R-Kennewick, represents the 8th Legislative District and is a professor of cybersecurity at Columbia Basin College.

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