Eagle County educators are working hard to get student learning back on track in the ‘post-pandemic’ world | VailDaily.com
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Eagle County educators are working hard to get student learning back on track in the ‘post-pandemic’ world

How the local district is interpreting data on student achievement and paving a path forward

Although reports and test scores continue to show the impacts of the pandemic on student learning and achievement, Eagle County School District is staying the course to improve teaching and learning for all.
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Across the country and state, researchers, educators as well as school and district administration are still trying to understand and overcome the pandemic’s impacts on student learning and behaviors.

While these consequences vary by each student, school and district, there are some themes that are more prominent than others.

This fall, the Keystone Policy Center released a report, which analyzed results from a number of state assessments, including Colorado Measures of Academic Success and the SAT exams.



“This report details the first robust data set available in three years and the student achievement scores should be of great concern to parents, community and policymakers,” reads the report’s introduction.

The report compares data from Colorado’s academic assessment against recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a national standard for measuring student achievement). Based on these metrics, the Keystone Policy report highlights six key findings for the state:

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  • Participation rates on assessments rebounded from 2021, though are still below 2019
  • Statewide academic performance on CMAS in English and Math was only slightly below 2019 levels; English performance dropped from 2021 and Math rebounded slightly from the previous year but remains “very low”
  • While there were some bright spots in math, it still remains an “enormous challenge across the entire state”
  • Elementary students rebounded more quickly to pre-pandemic levels while middle and high school students showed progress, but are “far from where needed”
  • There is a relationship between student demographics and academic achievement
  • Wide gaps in performance exist between groups of students based on race, family income and instructional programs

These trends do not speak for all schools or school districts, however.

“Some schools and districts have bucked this trend, and academic performance bounced back to near pre-pandemic performance for some cohorts of students across the state,” it reads.

While the report — as well as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and standardized testing results — can provide valuable information, the findings are not necessarily surprising, said Katie Jarnot, Eagle County School District’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.



“The report is similar to many other reports (CATO Institute, Nationsreportcard.gov, etc.). I don’t think anyone in education is surprised. We know the magnitude of the disruption that was caused by COVID,” Jarnot said. “In the Eagle County School District, we started preparing to support learning loss back in 2020 as soon as we knew that the initial school closure was going to last more than two weeks. I think that is why our district scores dropped less than 1% pre- to post-pandemic.”

Jarnot added that the local district appears to have bucked the major impacts of the learning loss and widening gap for minority and lower-income students indicated by many of these reports. That doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done, however.

“We were not satisfied with our pre-pandemic performance and have been working diligently on our MTSS systems, curriculum, resources, standards-based grading and interventions in an effort to improve our performance,” Jarnot said.

There are many metrics that the local district uses to track student performance and academic achievement. However, it tries to keep the focus on more localized results and assessments.  

“Our district efforts are driven by our own district’s results rather than state or national results,” Jarnot said. “We rely on our district-specific results on both state (CMAS, PSAT, SAT, WIDA) and local (Star) testing to drive our work. So, yes, our district-specific results impact our DEI/MTSS, curriculum, and instruction efforts very much.”

Academic Achievement

Source: Keystone Policy Center, “Back to School: Colorado’s Charter School Academic Performance 2022”
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In comparing the percentage of students that met or exceeded expectations on Colorado’s state assessments, the data from Keystone shows that the local Eagle County School District fell below state percentages.

For elementary and middle school math scores, the report stated that 32% of students met or exceeded expectations across the state. In Eagle County, 25% of students met this threshold. In high school math, the state percentage was 38% while Eagle County School District’s was 29%.

In comparing elementary and middle school literacy scores, 43% of students met or exceeded expectations across the state. In Eagle County, 41% of students met this threshold. For high school literacy, the state percentage was 63% while Eagle County School District’s was 58%.

While the Keystone report does not reveal district-level data about gaps in student achievement, CMAS results released earlier this year from the Colorado Department of Education do give this granular data. These showed gaps between genders, race/ethnicity and socio-economic status.

“We have always closely tracked our state and local testing results,” Jarnot said.

As a result of what it has seen, the district has rolled out significant changes to its curriculum, interventions and student supports.

“This is probably why our scores did not drop as significantly as some other districts. We were already working on these efforts pre-pandemic,” Jarnot hypothesized.

Math

Overall, math is one subject that both the district and the Keystone report have emphasized as an area of need. Based on Colorado Department of Education CMAS data, in 2022, across grades 3-8, there was a 4% decrease in the number of students who met or exceeded expectations in the math assessment.

“Math has always been an area of great need,” Jarnot said

In 2018, the Eagle County School District conducted a math audit to understand the extent of the challenge and then built a plan to implement changes. The audit, Jarnot added, demonstrated a need for increased supports for math teachers, aligned curriculum, as well as better curricular resources and more interventions.  

A group of district leadership, teachers and principals came together to build a plan to roll out these proposed changes. The implementation, however, “was disrupted by the pandemic,” Jarnot said.

While it still made some progress over the past few years, this year it is starting to get back on track with these improvements, she added.

“Unfortunately, the shortage of teachers and guest teachers has made providing professional learning and development difficult. Fortunately, most of the items suggested in the math committee’s vision are also being addressed through the standards-based grading initiative, which will improve instruction in all areas,” Jarnot said.

“We expect that barring another massive interruption like we saw in 2020-2021, the changes that we have made to curriculum and instruction, supported by further professional learning, will improve our math scores. If not for the massive disruption caused by COVID I feel confident we would have seen gains already had we been able to continue the district-wide math efforts that we began in 2018.” 

But why is math such a challenging topic for students, both pre- and post-pandemic?

Kim Biniecki currently teaches eighth-grade math at Homestake Peak and has been teaching math for 22 years. Biniecki pursued a career as a math teacher due to her love of learning the subject, however, she’s seen firsthand the challenge it presents to many students.

For many, it’s their past experiences that drive a negative experience around the subject.

“If a student comes to your class with a negative fixed mindset, it is hard to convince them that math is awesome. The first two weeks of school we spend time exploring growth mindset thinking in regards to math,” she said.

This year, she had one such student who Biniecki described as being on the “I hate math train.”

“The reason he hated math was that he perceived himself to be bad at math,“ she said. “I have worked hard with this young man. Throughout the year he has taken baby steps with his confidence. He is now completely grasping our eighth-grade content and he is excelling.”

Biniecki has found that students’ negative perceptions of math are often driven by past experiences with teachers and even parents. Most teachers or parents teach math with the same set of procedures — or “tricks” — that they learned the subject with themselves. The problem is not the parents or the teachers, but rather the system they grew up in, she added.

“We want kids to be flexible with numbers and choose the most efficient method to solve a problem,” Biniecki said. “In no way am I berating teachers or parents. We do what we know. When we know better we do better. We need to continue to spread the word that math is not a set of rules and procedures to follow. Relationships between numbers and making connections are crucial for deep understanding.”

For this reason, in her over two decades teaching the subject, Biniecki’s basic pedagogy around the subject has remained consistent.

“Simply it is that students need to own their math knowledge and they do that by creating their own connections,” Biniecki said.

While math is often the subject hit the hardest, pandemic or no pandemic, Biniecki has seen some changes over the past several years.

“Honestly, kids are still kids. Yes, the skills they are coming with are not as robust as I might like, they are fragile with operations with positive and negative numbers, and not quite understanding the idea of balance in an equation, but these are all skills we naturally build on in eighth-grade math,” she said.

However, while the inconsistencies and challenges in the first year of pandemic learning had their impact, Biniecki said last year represented a return to the “new normal.”

“We were tallying where students were and yes they are a bit behind, but they are learning. There has been a lack of consistency the last three years and it will take time to catch up to pre-pandemic levels,” Biniecki said.

Regardless, she feels that the district’s work to fill in student gaps and help students make gains will get progress back on track.

“I think that decline in math scores is just a blip,” she said.

Student behavior, engagement

The interruptions in typical high school experiences, like graduation, have led to a loss of culture and an increase in behavioral challenges at high schools.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

The other areas majorly impacted by the pandemic were students’ behavior, social-emotional development and overall engagement. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found a decline in student engagement on several metrics including a reported lower motivation and morale from both students and teachers.   

Locally, Jarnot said the district is seeing a shift in student engagement mainly at the high schools.

“The impact of COVID-19 was devastating to the culture at our traditional high schools,” she said.

Jarnot reported that there is a “stark difference between pre-and post-pandemic data” around its high school’s discipline data, truancy data, student perception surveys and senior exit surveys.

“Last year both principals (at Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley High Schools), with support of district leadership, ‘renormed’ discipline procedures at the beginning of the second semester in order to address the disruptive behavior,” Jarnot said.

“While we haven’t seen issues like the TikTok challenges or Instagram meme pages so far this year (knock on wood), the school culture is still not back to where we would like to see it and major infractions that lead to suspension and expulsion are still prevalent.”

Jarnot hypothesized that this shift in culture was a direct result of high school students losing the connection to their schools and experiencing a disruption in social-emotional development. It’s something, she added, many other schools are experiencing in the state and country.

“I believe high schools have been harder hit than middle or elementary schools because between March of 2020 and June of 2021 so many of the things that make up traditional high school culture were disrupted,” Jarnot said, adding this includes things like prom, homecoming, graduation as well as many other extracurricular activities.      

“When the juniors and seniors did not get to experience these things they aren’t able to pass down these essential pieces of culture to the sophomores and freshmen,” she added. “In my opinion, this is a much bigger issue than a dip in test scores.”

Moving ahead

While the pandemic certainly had an impact, there is a more general hypothesis that it simply exacerbated pre-existing challenges and brought them to the forefront. In Colorado, this is seen most acutely with the state’s formula for how it funds K-12 education.

“School funding and recruitment and retainment of quality teachers are at the root of everything right now. The educational funding model in the state of Colorado continues to be a primary cause,” Jarnot said.

“We cannot improve our outcomes if we do not have the money we need to attract and retain quality teachers, provide additional positions like interventionists, purchase curriculum resources and interventions, and provide guest teachers so that our educators can continue their own professional development.”

Similarly, one of the Keystone Policy report conclusions is that “Colorado policymakers should consider revisiting school funding formulas to better target resources to these students.”

And while the local district looks to the state legislature to make improvements in its upcoming session, it will strive to stay its course forward.

“With or without test scores and reports we continually strive to improve teaching and learning in all areas,” Jarnot said, later adding, “There is no solution that does not depend on adequate staffing ratios and quality teachers.”


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