Learning Fallout

Analysts say students lost 10 to 60 days of instruction to COVID-19 and inaction threatens to widen learning gaps

New Mexico students lost ground in academic achievement during the first year of the pandemic and if districts don’t address inequalities, they are likely to continue to widen, according to a new legislative report.

The Legislative Finance Committee heard Wednesday from analysts who examined the educational impacts of COVID-19 and noted data is in short supply.

At the top of the list of impacts, evaluators estimated that New Mexico’s students lost at least 10 to 60 days of instruction as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The limited assessment conducted during the last school year—standardized testing was optional in 2020 and 2021—shows “only 31 percent New Mexico elementary school students are now learning at grade level, compared to about 37 percent pre-pandemic,” the report reads.

Despite a lack of evidence normally supplied by testing, the report warns that New Mexican students of color mirrored a national trend in facing greater educational barriers than their white peers, resulting in declining proficiency rates. One challenge that dogged New Mexico students for the whole period of remote learning during the pandemic was limited access to the internet.

The learning gaps are likely to exacerbate inequalities, said Ryan Tolman, program evaluator for LFC. Tolman said this is in part because of how individual districts have responded to learning through the pandemic.

By providing autonomy to districts, the education department has allowed local leaders to decide how to use the $1.5 billion from the federal government’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to address learning gaps. But the LFC report suggests that the department has not addressed how it will evaluate local interventions for their effectiveness.

“We find that districts are not equally utilizing the resources available to them, varying in their strategies and priorities toward addressing student learning,” Tolman told the committee. “This could inadvertently create disparities for students across school districts.”

Extended learning time programs, which add 10 instructional days to the school calendar, are one strategy that the department and districts have used to address learning gaps, but the amount of additional time needed in the classroom to fill in disparities is forecasted to be significant.

“If a student lost 60 days, they would need six years of extended learning time or a little over two years of K-5 plus, to make up those losses,” Mitchel Latimer, another LFC program evaluator, told the committee.

Even before the pandemic, “on average, at-risk New Mexico students were already over half a year (6,000 hours, or 100 days, or 20 weeks, or 4 months) behind in learning,” according to the report.

To address the learning gaps, the LFC assessment recommends mandating extended learning time programs in all districts across the state and requiring K-5 plus, another voluntary program that increases instructional time for younger students, in areas serving at-risk students.

In 2022, of the state’s 89 school districts, 43 opted out of the K-5 plus and extended learning time programs. School districts and charter schools that elect to not participate had to provide notice to legislators and PED how lost instructional time would be recovered. Santa Fe Public Schools provided both extended learning time and K-5 programs.

Public Education Department Secretary Designate Kurt Steinhaus thinks the school year should be longer, but he won’t require it. “The least effective power [an education department has], according to the research, is mandating, getting a big stick and holding it over somebody’s head. In that research, the most effective use of that power is to incentivize the behavior you want to see,” Steinhaus told the committee.

Steinhaus said his department does not have sufficient information on what is happening at the district level to close learning gaps. He pointed to a common problem affecting a wide variety of industries at the current time: The department is facing an insufficient workforce.

“The amount of work that’s expected of our agency compared to the resources we have, just do not exist,” Steinhaus told the committee that the education department can’t keep up with recent legislation. He cites the Hispanic Education Act and Indian Education Act, among others, “We don’t have the staff to do that. Our research and evaluation department does not exist.”

Steinhaus equates this to the persistent issue of teacher vacancies facing New Mexico. On Tuesday the LFC heard a new report from New Mexico State University outlining the difficulty schools have in hiring K-12 teachers.

Legislators expressed confidence in the state’s new education leadership.

“However the war, the battle, is going to look, I’m with you,” Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, said. “Believe me I’ll be standing right at your side to make this educational change.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the language in the LFC report regarding its recommendations.

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