TN closings slash math, reading proficiency 50% or more

State factory school commissioner Penny Schwinn says Gov. Bill Lee’s state of emergency has caused public school students to lose ground academically. (Photo Vivian Jones)

(The Center Square) – Reading proficiency among Tennessee third-graders is projected to drop by 50%, and math proficiency is projected to drop by 65% because of COVID-19-related school closures, according to preliminary projections released by the Department of Education.

By Vivian Jones | The Center Square

Gov. Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced the projected learning loss during a news conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday.

“What we’re looking at is unprecedented,” Schwinn said. “What we would traditionally refer to as the summer slide is compounded by the fact that we had three additional months of school building closure, and many students are learning remotely.”

As schools across the state have been closed for six months or more – three months of summer, and an additional three months last spring – learning loss is expected to be 2.5 times the normal summer rate. Schwinn said learning loss is projected to have a similar effect on urban, suburban and rural students but hit early grade students and those in low-income communities hardest.

“We know that this is impacting our younger learners more than anyone else. It’s hard to teach a child to read, but it is really hard to teach a child to read through a computer,” Schwinn said.


Lee and Schwinn stressed the first priority to address learning loss is to get students back in the classroom.

“If students are not in buildings … they are not getting that direct instruction from a highly qualified teacher in the classroom,” Schwinn said. “We know that there is an extraordinary cost in things that we don’t measure in standardized tests, such as the way in which students interact with one another, the way in which they think about how to solve problems, the way in which they are able to ask for help and get immediate feedback on their work.”

More than 90 percent of Tennessee school districts now are offering in-person learning. Schwinn said 99.6 percent of schools offering in-person instruction have remained open.

“This shows how important it is that our kids get back into the classroom,” Lee said. “Through this report, an alarm has been sounded.”

Projections were developed from a study by the department conducted with national researchers in June of how students were projected to perform this year. That data was combined with results from more than 30,000 beginning-of-year student assessments voluntarily provided from districts across the state.

Schwinn said the department would work with school districts and the Tennessee Legislature in coming weeks to find policy solutions to address the learning loss.

The department also has received $40 million from the U.S. Department of Education in competitive grants to address COVID-19 learning loss – more than any other state in the country. The department designated $20 million to provide literacy support options to parents of vulnerable and lower performing students. Parents will be able to choose from hours of literacy support that will be available from teachers, districts, after school providers and education nonprofits.

Schwinn told The Center Square the department is working to find a vendor to disperse the funds, and she anticipates a pilot program will launch in the spring.

The other $20 million from the U.S. Department of Education will go to in-school programs for teacher-level support to address learning loss.

Lee said he plans to discuss what to do with teacher assessments next year with stakeholders, and the decision on whether to pass a “hold harmless” deal on teacher assessments will be up to the Legislature.

“I think that what’s most important is that we have an assessment this spring so that we know where they are,” Lee said. “If we don’t know where our students are, then we don’t know how to improve.”

The Tulis Report is 1 p.m. weekdays, live and lococentric.

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