December 14, 2021

December 2021 Research Rundown

By Krista Kaput

Welcome to EdAllies’ December Research Rundown, our curated list of recent, relevant research we think is worth adding to the education equity conversation. This month, we are sharing research on:

  • The impact of COVID on student achievement, 
  • The impact of staffing shortages in high-poverty districts, and 
  • Implicit bias in grading and how to mitigate it. 
Understanding Student Learning: Insights from Fall 2021 

Curriculum Associates, November 2021

Analyzing more than 3 million students’ fall 2021 scores against averages from 2017-19 on a criterion-referenced grade-level placement test called i-Ready, researchers found that fewer students are at grade level—across all grades from first through eighth—and that more students are two or more grade levels below their actual grade level than before the pandemic. The unfinished learning was particularly stark in math. Students in grades 2-7 showed the greatest increases in students behind grade-level for math—ranging from 8 to 10 percentage points. In reading, the most significant increases in students behind grade-level in reading were experienced by students in second grade (9 percentage points higher) and third grade (seven percentage points higher). These findings are particularly unsettling because third-grade reading proficiency is a critical indicator of future academic success. 

When disaggregated, the authors found schools that serve predominantly Black and/or Latino students saw larger declines in students at grade-level in both reading and math. They also found that those schools saw much larger increases in the percentage of students who were two or more years below grade level. For example, in third-grade math, while schools that serve predominantly white students saw a 6 percentage point increase in students who are two or more grade levels behind, schools that serve predominantly Black students saw a 17 percentage point increase and schools that serve predominantly Latino students saw a 14 percentage point increase. 

The authors also cross-examined the data against the median annual household income associated with the school’s zip code. They found that, across all grades, the percentage of students on grade level has decreased in both reading and math, relative to their historical average, and regardless of their income bracket. With that said, the percentage of students who are not on grade level was much higher in school districts that had a lower median household income. For example, in grade 3 reading, schools, where the median income was less than $50,000, saw a 10 percentage point increase in the percentage of students who are behind two or more grade levels, as compared to a four percentage point increase for districts where the median household income is more than $75,000. 


This data is one in a long list of reports that have affirmed that existing gaps got worse during COVID-19. And Minnesota is no exception. However, rather than gaze at the problem, it’s critical that schools use research-backed strategies to help address unfinished learning. In particular, given that so many students are below grade level, it’s critical that schools focus on learning acceleration—when an educator starts with grade-level content and strategically weaves in key concepts from the earlier grade that students need to master the grade-level work. Learning acceleration ensures that students spend more time on grade-level work, which is critical to catching up. 

Furthermore, given the importance of reading proficiency, districts should ensure that they are using scientifically-backed strategies and curriculum. The Minnesota Legislature also recognized the importance of reading literacy during the 2021 session when they allocated $3 million in one-time funding to provide Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling Grants (LETRS) training for more than 1,200 Minnesota teachers. 
Read the Analysis

School District Staffing Challenges in a Rapidly Recovering Economy 

Center for Education Data and Research, November 2021

Teacher staffing is a growing concern nationwide as the nation recovers from the pandemic. While we don’t have comprehensive data on what’s happening at a national level, researchers are starting to share findings based on state-specific research. Using job vacancy data from Washington State, researchers identified trends in teacher staffing shortages. They found that districts are most in need of substitute teachers and special education teachers, followed by English Learner, STEM, and elementary teachers. Looking at non-teaching positions (e.g., food services and paraprofessionals), the two largest shortage areas are athletics and paraprofessionals. 

To better understand the impact these shortages had on students, the researchers created quartiles at the district level for “high poverty” and “low poverty” districts using free and reduced-price lunch data. They found that the vacancy rates, overall, were much higher in districts that serve the largest concentrations of students in poverty. The gaps in staffing shortages were particularly stark for special education teachers, English Learner teachers, paraprofessionals, transportation, and athletics. 


Prior to the pandemic, Minnesota experienced large teacher shortages for special education, career and technical education, English Language, and math. And there are concerns that the pandemic is exacerbating these shortages. In addition to the teacher shortages, Minnesota schools are facing a large substitute teacher shortage. Some districts have turned to asking parents to get their substitute teachers. The Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB)—the state’s teacher licensing agency—has even suggested that schools should “preemptively license every staff member with a bachelor’s degree, including janitors and nurses, to increase the pool of possible substitutes.” 

While there is no statewide data to track the impact of where these staffing shortages are hitting the hardest, there are a few things that the Minnesota Legislature can do to address the issues. During the 2021 legislative session, a bipartisan bill was considered that would have created a short-call substitute teacher program. It didn’t make it into the final omnibus bill, but given the large statewide teacher shortages, the Legislature should prioritize this issue in 2022. 

There are also a number of technical changes that the Legislature can make to the tiered licensure system—for example, a BA exemption for language teachers and reciprocity with HBCUs—that would remove barriers into the profession. Finally, it’s critical that we focus on maintaining, and not eliminating, pathways that have helped to racially diversify the teaching workforce and get more high-quality candidates from different backgrounds into the classroom. 
Read the Full Report


Experimental Evidence on Teachers’ Racial Bias in Student Evaluation: The Role of Grading Scales

Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, June 2020

In a randomized web-based experiment of over 1,500 teachers, a researcher had teachers evaluate two identical second-grade writing samples. One was presented as the work of a Black student and the other as the work of a white student. Teachers were asked to rate the writing sample on a grade-level scale with seven optionsfrom far below grade level to far above grade level. Of note, the performance criteria were not explicitly defined. 

The researcher found that when teachers evaluated the student writing, they were 4.7 percentage points more likely to consider the white child’s writing at or above grade level, compared to the identical writing from the Black child—illuminating the impact of racial bias in grading. They also found that female teachers were seven percentage points less likely to rate the Black student’s work at or above grade level, though this racial bias was not found with male teachers. Similarly, white teachers were eight percentage points less likely to rate the Black student’s writing at or above grade level, as compared to teachers of color who did not show any evidence of grading bias. 

Importantly, when the researcher asked the teachers to rate the writing sample again using a rubric with four clearly defined performance criteria, the grades were essentially the same. The racial bias was small and not significant, unlike when the teachers didn’t use a standardized grading rubric. The author notes that standards-based grading rubrics and mastery-based grading that has specific criteria may be potentially effective approaches to mitigating racial bias and promoting racial equity in schools. 


To mitigate bias in grading and access to advanced courses, several states have implemented policies that used objective, standardized metrics. Automatic enrollment policies are one example that has been adopted by five states—Washington, Colorado, North Carolina, Nevada, and Illinois. The policy aims to eliminate a layer of bias by defaulting students into the more rigorous course option if they meet or exceed standards on the annual standards-aligned state assessment in a particular subject area. Since Tacoma Public Schools implemented the policy, enrollment in advanced classes has more than doubled from 28% to 71% of students. While the change has helped increase enrollment for all student demographic groups, advanced course enrollment for students of color has tripled from 20% to 60%. During the 2021 legislative session, the Minnesota Legislature considered a bill that would have explicitly allowed Minnesota districts to adopt an automatic enrollment policy for math. Given the large and ongoing disparities in access to advanced coursework, the Legislature should consider the bill again during the 2022 legislative session.  

In addition to adding objective measures to expand access, teachers should be working to address and mitigate their implicit biases. When this doesn’t happen, it can drive discipline disparities and negatively impact student achievement and engagement. In a state where 95% of teachers are white, this puts students of color at a disadvantage. To address this at the teacher prep level, PELSB has included a couple of standards in their draft Standards of Effective Practice—the common set of knowledge and skills all teacher candidates learn in prep—so that teachers could recognize bias and change practices accordingly. 

While this work happens, it’s critical to also racially diversify the teacher workforce. During the 2021 legislative session, the Legislature invested in programs—e.g., Grow Your Own, CUGMEC grant, and Come Teach in Minnesota Grants—that aim to do just that. 
Read the Full Analysis

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