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Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Sometimes referred to as “nape” scores, it’s a nationwide measurement of learning, particularly reading and math in the 4th and 8th grades, and West Virginia had some of the lowest scores in the country.
Deputy Superintendent Michele Blatt spoke with reporter Chris Schulz about what the results mean for education in West Virginia.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Schulz: Deputy Blatt, thank you so much for joining me. Could you start off by telling me what was your reaction to seeing the NAEP data come out?
Blatt: Well, the NAEP scores further highlighted concerns that we already had based on our review of our general summative assessment from the end of last school year. We knew we would most likely see a decline. We were a little surprised at how much of the decline we saw, but overall, we were not expecting good results just based on looking at our summative assessment from that previous year as well.
Schulz: What can you attribute these results to?
Blatt: You know, to begin with coming out of the COVID pandemic, and the loss of in person instruction was a huge hit on the scores across all of the states. There’s no replacement for a teacher in front of a student, and that ongoing interaction and relationships that we have in our classrooms. While we provided virtual instruction when our schools were shut down, we know that so many of our students do not have the broadband to even download lessons or to engage on a daily basis.
We also know that it was a huge learning curve for our teachers to just overnight transition to virtual instruction, as opposed to in person instruction. And then thinking of the lack of support that many of our students had in the home. We have a lot of, you know, parents that were working, and students were left alone all day trying to do lessons. We have a lot of students in foster care and various other situations across our state that just without that teacher to support them in their instruction, they were not able to obtain the skills that they would have had they been in the classroom.
Schulz: What does this data tell you about the path forward in West Virginia for education?
Blatt: Well, it tells us that we have a lot of students that we need to get caught up, we have a lot of students with skill deficiencies and skill gaps because of the fact that they did not get that continuous instruction. I think it impacts you know, our younger students. And then even with our eighth grade math scores were our lowest scores across the date. When you miss two and three years of instruction, it’s hard to go back and catch up and to see where those discrepancies are.
It tells me that we need to figure out what skills our students are lacking and where the skill gaps are, and we need to make sure that we can provide the interventions and supports that they need to make up that last instruction.
Schulz: What is an example of one of these skill gaps that you’re referring to?
Blatt: Well, I know at our younger years, we’ve got students that are in third grade, who missed a substantial amount of instruction in their early years of learning to read. So we know we have a lot of students with skill gaps in phonics and fluency comprehension, those areas because they did not have that direct instruction that they needed to learn to read.
Schulz: This isn’t just going to follow our educational structures. This is a community issue more broadly, as I see it, can you tell me what intervention might actually look like?
Blatt: Yes, I would agree with you. One of the things that we have in place is the Communities in Schools Initiative, that is a program that puts a site coordinator in the building to help take care of all the basic needs and safety needs of our students so that our teachers do have more time to focus on teaching and they’re not the ones trying to provide the basic needs as well as if the academic instruction the students need.
But we’re going to need everyone to rally around. We’re going to need to focus really on what it is these students need, working with parents, providing parents with resources that they need to be able to support their students in the evenings and on the weekends. And then also, as you mentioned, community members, any type of mentoring programs or engagement that we can get with our community and business leaders will definitely assist with the issues.
Schulz: One of the things that I heard in the presentation of the data was that COVID-19, and the pandemic didn’t create these issues, but rather highlighted issues in education that already existed. Do you think that that’s also true in West Virginia?
Blatt: I do. We have been focusing for the last couple of years on the fact of how great of a need our students have with social and emotional health and their physical needs. Just as you mentioned, the community that surrounds our schools, and the, in some places, the lack of support for public education, all of those things are definitely something that the pandemic highlighted.
I do think there’s a positive in that the pandemic did highlight the importance of our schools and in-person learning, because that’s the place, the school is the place where the students are getting the meals that they need, the instruction that they need, maybe the mental health counseling, behavior, assistance and all of those things. So if there is a positive that came out of it, it’s that I feel more people did see the value of our public school system and all the support that we provide.