August 26, 2021

Preparing for MCA Scores: 6 Strategies to Address Lost Learning

By Krista Kaput

This week, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) will release the reading, math, and science results from the 2021 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA)—the only state assessments aligned to Minnesota’s academic standards. These assessments are a critical temperature check on where students are and how school closures impacted their learning. 

If Minnesota follows national trends and those in states like Texas, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Ohio, we will see that students—most significantly students of color and low-income students—lost meaningful learning and are further behind on meeting key benchmarks. To put it bluntly: existing achievement gaps got much worse during COVID-19.

To help Minnesota and districts address learning loss, the federal government allocated $1.3 billion to our state in the American Rescue Plan (ARP). MDE indicated that they’d use $66 million of their $132 million to address learning loss, while the bulk of the money ($1.18 billion) will go directly to local districts and charter schools through the Title 1 formulawhich is based on the number of students in poverty. Of note, ARP requires that districts and charter schools use at least 20% of the money to address learning loss.

As districts continue to work on ARP plans and decide how they will use their money, it’s critical that they use their reading and math MCA achievement data to inform their decision-making. These six research-based best practices can serve as a clear and validated guide for districts to use to address lost learning.

1. Accelerate, Don’t Remediate 

A common approach to address learning loss is remediation—when students are taught content and standards that are designed for earlier grades. However, research shows that this can actually hurt students and exacerbate racial academic inequities. Instead, districts should adopt and implement 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. 

A recent report affirms the benefits of learning acceleration. Analyzing data from over 100,000 classrooms and 2 million students using Zearn’s K-5 online math platform during the 2020-21 school year, researchers found that when educators implemented learning acceleration and exposed all students to grade-level materials, students of color and those from low-income families benefited the most. More specifically, they found that schools that served mostly students of color and where the teachers implemented learning acceleration found a much smaller increase in students who struggled with grade-level content compared to students in remediated classrooms. The findings were similar for schools with large populations of low-income students. 

2. Implement High-Dosage Tutoring 

A large body of research shows that high-dosage tutoring—particularly for low-income students—directly tied to classroom content can help produce large learning gains. More specifically, the evidence is strongest for reading-focused tutoring for K-2 students and math-focused tutoring for older students. However, for the tutoring to be effective, there are several design principles that districts should consider including: 

  • Group Size: Tutors can effectively instruct up to three or four students at a time. 
  • Frequency: Tutoring should be delivered through three or more sessions per week or intensive, week-long, small-group programs from educators who have received adequate training and ongoing support.
  • Measurement: Tutoring programs should support data use and ongoing informal assessments, which allows the tutors to more effectively individualize instruction. 
  • Scheduling: Tutoring that is offered during the school day has been shown to result in greater learning gains than those that are offered after-school or in the summer.  
3. Adopt Expanded Learning Time 

Research shows that increasing learning timeduring nonacademic class periods or by extending the school day—is an effective strategy for all age groups, subject matter, and student populations. In terms of design, the research indicates that expanded learning time is most effective when:

  • Classes have fewer than 20 students,
  • Instructors have ongoing support, 
  • Curricula are aligned with content from the regular school day, and 
  • The program offers 44 to 100 hours of additional instruction. 
4. Build Strong Data Systems 

Strong data systems designed to monitor early student warning signs—attendance, assignment completion, grades—bolster a school’s ability to decide on which interventions to use and individualize services. Strong data systems help educators track student progress, ensure that the interventions are helping to accelerate student learning, and make necessary adjustments. 

Data systems are also important for collaborative communication with families and students. When parents have access to data on their child, they are better able to help them and advocate for them at the school level. Data can also help students identify their own strengths and areas for growth, informing their educational experience. 

5. Focus on Social-Emotional Learning 

The pandemic is disrupting students’ lives in numerous ways, including increased feelings of fear, anxiety, and isolation. In addition to academic supports to accelerate learning, it’s critical that schools also are meeting students’ social-emotional and mental health needs. This isn’t an “either-or,” it’s a “both-and”. 

Schools must make guidance counselors, social workers, and other mental health supports accessible, and provide training for teachers on how to support social-emotional needs when not in the classroom full-time. Districts should also consider using existing validated student surveys—like the CORE Rally Instrument and Copilot-Elevate Survey—that can help gauge student mindsets and circumstances, and help to inform needs and appropriate interventions. 

On a larger scale, schools should be rethinking their curricular frameworks and how they are (or aren’t) weaving in social-emotional learning. Increasingly, schools are structuring their social-emotional learning programs within a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework, which provides a model of instruction within a school that covers both academics and social-emotional skill development. 

6. Clear and Collaborative Family Communication 

Families are a critical part of helping accelerate student learning and addressing their social-emotional needs. Therefore, it’s important for schools to engage in two-way dialogue with families. Research shows that students are more likely to have better academic achievement when teachers engage in meaningful and collaborative relationships with families.