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Virginia Department of Education has a plan for addressing pandemic-related learning loss

Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction spoke with us about Bridging the Gap: Learning Loss Recovery Plan, which launched as a pilot project in the spring. Since that time, Virginia students’ test scores on indicators such as the Standards of Learning and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, have shown that the losses are more profound than had been anticipated.  

The NAEP assesses 4th and 8th grade students in reading and math. When the scores were released in October, Governor Glenn Youngkin released a multi-point plan to rebound from the deficits. His directives included expenditure by school divisions of remaining COVID relief funds for tutoring and other services to support student achievement.  

He called for partnerships with students at Virginia’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities that will allow those college students to tutor public school students. Youngkin asked the State Board of Education to increase learning standards rather than lowering expectations. And he called on VDOE to utilize and expand its pilot Bridging the Gap program. Superintendent Balow spoke with us about the pilot, at length. 

TRANSCRIPT OF FULL INTERVIEW 

MILES: Nearly everyone has been affected by COVID, but reports show school-aged children have been seriously impacted. A new National Association for Educational Progress report shows that American students, and Virginia students, in particular, had sharp declines. State education leaders have recently launched the Bridging the Gap: Learning Loss Recovery plan. And Jillian Balow, State Superintendent for Public Instruction in Virginia, is joining us now to talk about that plan. Thank you so much for joining us, Mrs. Balow. 

BALOW: Thank you so much for having me, Angie. 

MILES: This is the first time, of course, that you’ve been on our show. I’d love if you’d just take a moment to tell us how much you’re enjoying Virginia, having come here from Wyoming. 

BALOW: Well, thank you for that wonderful question, and I am loving it. The people have been, of course, wonderful. The fall colors have been stunning and the job is invigorating.  

MILES: Well, that’s good to hear. We have a wonderful state here in Virginia. We’re very proud of it, and we’re all very concerned, too, of course, about the learning loss that children have experienced during the pandemic. We know that when the scores came out, many people were dismayed. Governor Youngkin announced plans for a full-fledged recovery statewide, but Bridging the Gap is one part of that that really had already begun. Tell us, first of all, what the scores look like and how the VDOE recovery plan was already launched. 

BALOW: Sure. Last May, I released a report from my office called Our Commitment to Virginians and in it, outlined what we saw coming down the pike with respect to student progress and the widening achievement gap as a result of COVID-19—and in Virginia, a trend that had started long before COVID-19 hit. So, we were already addressing the learning loss well before the NAEP scores came out of the Nation’s Report Card, as you mentioned. And those were even more devastating than what we thought. We lost ground greatly in 4th grade and 8th grade reading and math. And Virginia, in particular, saw the steepest declines in the nation from 2017 to 2022 in 4th grade reading and 4th grade math. So, if that’s not enough to get the sense of urgency, then I’m not sure what it is.  

But again, the great thing is we already had some things in motion to address this. And one of those is the Bridging the Gap pilot or plan. For this year, it’s a pilot. And we have over 25 school divisions that are involved in Bridging the Gap. And what it is, in layman’s language, is a report card, so to speak, figuratively speaking, of the student’s data. And it says that this is how the student is tested and this is all the test data that we have on them since they’ve been taking tests. This is where they are, and this is the ground they need to make up to be able to be on track to be successful.  

The schools that are involved in the pilot project will send those home and have conversations with parents about what that means—not just what the data means but what the school will be doing to intervene and also what parents can do to intervene, as well. For this year, Bridging the Gap spans 3rd through 8th grade. 

MILES: Very good to know. I should point out that the Nation’s Report Card, the NAEP, just measures 4th grade and 8th grade. It’s not that those are the only grades that had struggles with the scores. It’s that that’s what the snapshot involves—4th and 8th grades. As you prepare these assessments, data-driven information for school divisions and for parents and for teachers, to help students to improve, who is preparing the data? Is that being done at the Department of Education internally? 

BALOW: It’s been a collaboration with a company that does this for several states across the nation. And they’re tried and true in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, Tennessee, North Carolina, and other states. And so, we’ve partnered with them, but we’ve also combined this with some of our own data tools that our educators and parents are already used to. And so what we’re prepared to do in the next few months is make sure that reports for every single student in grades 3 through 8 are available to be sent home to parents. And we can’t just send them home unless there’s a plan or some communication about what does this mean and what are we doing about it.  

And so, that is a key part of Bridging the Gap. It’s making sure that our teachers, our educators have the knowledge and the ability to communicate with our parents about what this data means and that we’ve provided lots of partnerships and opportunities and resources for schools and for parents to say—and this is what we’ll do in response to that. We’ve counted on students being in school from 8 to 3 every day learning what they need to and if they need extra help they’re outside of school. But the truth is that right now, lots and lots of kids need help at home. Lots of kids need help in after-school programs and during the summer and on the weekends, and parents are the best way to make sure that we accomplish that. So, parents are a big part of the Bridging the Gap initiative.  

MILES: You said some really important things there—data-driven decision-making about instruction. Cutting-edge educators know that that’s really important. Involving parents—parent engagement can’t be overstated in its importance. But I’m wondering if as the pilot moves forward, you can share the name of the name of the company that’s compiling the data and helping VDOE to put that out, and if there is a place where parents, teachers and divisions who are not part of the pilot might be able to get a snapshot of exactly what that looks like so that maybe they can anticipate what’s coming down the pike. 

BALOW: Sure. So the national name of this tool is called EVAAS. And so in Virginia, we’re calling it VVAAS. And really, that is the reporting tool. But the data is ours. And this is the best part. Students don’t take any additional tests. It’s using the data that is already available. It’s using the SOL assessment data, the Early Reading data that we have and eventually, and with our own too at the Department of Education, some of the local assessments may eventually be put in there, as well. But that’s the partnership part of this... right? We’re relying on VVAAS to give us the same type of information that they’ve provided to other states, again, including Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and others. 

MILES: That is pretty catchy, by the way, VVAAS. So in addition to the data, which is crucial, really, and smart educators know to look at the data, but in addition to that, testing, assessments and data alone are not necessarily going to get us where we want to be... right? What other supports are a part of Bridging the Gap or are being done apart from Bridging the Gap to really help people with the learning loss that we’re experiencing? 

BALOW: Angie, that is such an important question and I hope that every single person in Virginia asks that question, because what we know is that parents are the most important teachers in a child’s life—from before they’re born and throughout their youth and adolescence and even into adulthood. We also know that great teachers matter. That’s the second most important adult in a child’s life and we know the statistics. When a child has even one or two great teachers during their school career, what a difference they can make on their trajectory in school and in life.  

And so, making sure that we tend to the details of giving parents information that they need and giving teachers information that they need is really important. So along with Bridging the Gap comes some training. For our pilot schools, that means training in understanding the reports, the VVAAS reports. It means having some of the difficult conversations that parents and teachers must have...that go beyond the transactions of here’s your report card and here’s how your student is doing...to let’s talk about some of the specific struggles that your child is having or some of the bright spots that are in your child’s school day and really having meaningful conversations about that so that the parent and the teacher are working in tandem, as a team, to address the learning loss and to address the needs of the student—both in school and out of school.  

So that’s what Bridging the Gap is really focused on. We want to provide those training tools, via video, via live training. Sometimes it might be an article for a parent or a teacher and also just giving them lots of support and taking their feedback throughout the school year. VDOE and others will be interviewing some of the participants in Bridging the Gap to see—what's working well for you or what’s been really challenging for you. And what we know across Virginia is that there are already schools and school divisions that are doing Bridging the Gap types of projects at the local level. We want to learn from those schools, and we want to take it statewide. And there are others who are involved in the project, in the initiative that say—we know we need this, but we’re not sure how to do it. And we want to make sure that we’re pairing those peer-to-peer conversations, as well.  

MILES: Very good. We appreciate your joining us for this extended conversation about a really important topic. We know that parents, teachers, administrators, all of us are concerned about learning loss through the pandemic that our students have endured. We will be watching the Bridging the Gap pilot as it unfurls and expands over the next year plus and thank you for joining us to speak about it. We know there’s much more to say and more to address, including teacher shortages but we will look forward to another conversation at another time. Thank you.