‘Deeply troubled’: Math learning gap widens during COVID, Wilton school officials say

The IXL Diagnostic score assesses a seventh grade student’s overall performance in math. The slide was presented to the Wilton Board of Education at its meeting on Oct. 22, 2020.

The IXL Diagnostic score assesses a seventh grade student’s overall performance in math. The slide was presented to the Wilton Board of Education at its meeting on Oct. 22, 2020.

Wilton Public Schools / Contributed photo

WILTON — There was good news, but also areas that need improvement concerning a gap in academic achievement experienced by students following three months of remote learning last spring, district officials said.

The information presented showed the gaps were far more severe, on average, in math than they were for English Language Arts.

Charles Smith, assistant superintendent of schools for curriculum, said the district began gathering information on students’ academic and skill levels when they returned to school.

“The information I received is better than I anticipated,” Smith said, adding there had been “dire predictions” on what impact the pandemic would have on student achievement. “I was worried we’d see a bigger lift than what were seeing right now in this data.”

There are, however, areas that need improvement, he added.

The tool used for the assessments is called IXL Diagnostics, something teachers and students have been using regularly for review. The IXL scores differ from standardized test scores, Smith explained.

From standardized test scores, he said, educators can see where students are academically in relation to one another. IXL compares a student’s score against the standard for a subject, giving educators a sense of how much of the curriculum they have mastered and what they still need to learn.

Students in Cider Mill and Middlebrook have taken the tests and the high school plans to administer it. The tests can be given in smaller portions rather than one long test, and Trudy Denton explained it takes about 110 to 125 questions for students to achieve what is known as a pinpoint score.

The math program tests students in six strands, and the ELA program tests four.

In a slide Humanities Coordinator Karen Brenneke shared with the board, the math program for seventh-graders tested fractions; algebra; numbers and operations; geometry; measurement; and data, statistics and probability.

This slide, of an unidentified seventh grader, showed a score of 770, indicating they had mastered 70 percent of the material expected to be learned by the end of the seventh-grade school year. The slide also showed where the student had their greatest strengths and weaknesses.

The slide she shared for ELA showed the results of a fourth-grader. The strands tested were vocabulary, reading strategies, writing strategies, and grammar and mechanics. This test gave an overall language arts score and a reading score.

She then shared a slide that showed the average ELA scores for third through eighth grade. In each case, the students were performing within their grade level:

Third grade — 341

Fourth grade — 448

Fifth grade — 555

Sixth grade — 631

Seventh grade — 756\

Eighth grade — 845

“As you can see, this is not showing the gaps we had anticipated,” Brenneke said, although she warned some first- and second-graders, who have not been tested, may be suffering some reading gaps. That is not surprising, she said, considering their learning was interrupted at a “critical juncture while they were still building their foundational skills.”

The picture for math was not as promising, and Trudy Denton, the district’s math and science curriculum coordinator, noted that learning gaps, if not immediately addressed, do grow over time. The average pinpoint scores for math were:

Third grade — 302

Fourth grade — 371

Fifth grade — 466

Sixth grade — 557

Seventh grade — 614

Eighth grade — 719

“The learning models used in emergency e-learning for middle school may not have met the needs of some students,” she said, “although it’s difficult to determine what extent student participation in e-learning or the absence of participation contributed to learning gaps as well.”

Teachers will use a number of strategies to address the learning gaps for third through fifth grade, Denton said, including providing targeted instruction and feedback to students. For grades 6-8, it will be more challenging, she said, because of their schedule.

The scores, she reminded the board, are only averages, some students are above and some are below. The individual scores allow teachers to see what skills individual students need to work on. Parents and students have access to their individual scores.

“I continue to be troubled by our math performance,” Vice Chairman Glenn Hemmerle said. “It has been historically for this district a weak spot. We’ve always excelled in English Language Arts. Math continues to be our weak spot and I just don’t understand with all the emphasis we put on it, all the attention you pay to it, I am just deeply troubled we can’t get this thing moving in the right direction.”

Board Chairwoman Deborah Low acknowledged his concerns and said she would like to see math addressed at an upcoming meeting where the board can examine the issue more closely.

In response to a concern from Hemmerle about children in kindergarten through second grade, who he said seem most negatively affected by remote learning, Smith said the lower grades will be assessed in math in another month.

“I would add that the third-grade scores indicate our second-graders did pretty well last year,” he said.