Education “achievement gap” expected to grow due to COVID

Education experts anticipate that the achievement gap will widen due to the COVID-19 pandemic; causing students to participate in online school rather than in-person classes.

The achievement gap is defined as disparities in test scores and other measures of educational performance between different groups of students defined by socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity and gender.

According to the National Education Association (NEA), some of the most common contributors to the achievement gap are local economic opportunities, family involvement, lower expectations for some students and a lack of cultural representation in the curriculum.

Author and scholar Richard Rothstein says the achievement gap is expected to increase due to COVID-19. In states like Wisconsin, Maine and Connecticut– where the gap is especially large– it’s expected to widen even more. Although Oregon’s gap is smaller than these states, it is still a concern. 

In an article in The Washington Post, Rothstein argues that the achievement gap will only increase due to COVID-19 because it is difficult for students who do not have access to reliable internet or their own technological devices to keep up with online learning. 

“35 percent of low-income households with school-aged children don’t have high-speed internet; for moderate-income families, it is 17 percent, and only 6 percent for middle-class and affluent families,” he says. “When measured by race and ethnicity, the gap is greater for African-American and Hispanic families.”

Like other schools in PPS, Lincoln has distributed Chromebooks to students who need them for online school.

“We have distributed 28 Chromebooks to students since Mar. 12,” says Lincoln’s business manager, Jill Ross. “Every year for the last four years, with Friends of Lincoln’s support, we have sold Chromebooks to students in need for $40 each at the beginning of the year. In the last three years, 119 Chromebooks were distributed in this way.”  

However, free or low-cost Chromebooks do not solve the problem for students who have no high-speed internet at home. Many PPS students, as well as many students in rural parts of Oregon, do not have access to high-speed internet. However, PPS is working to provide internet for families in need. PPS is currently offering request forms on their website to apply for internet access. 

As a result of the district’s initiatives, Lincoln ELL and social sciences teacher Blair Hennessy adds that she has been able to connect better with her ELL students.

 “I’ve become a better teacher for my students who are learning English as a second or third language,” says Hennessy. “For the first time, I have had the ability to create a separate curriculum and have a separate meeting time with them. It’s two [or] three of them and one of me, and so it feels like that has actually been a win.” 

On the other hand, there are drawbacks to having to create new ways of learning for ELL students. 

“[Creating a separate curriculum has] taken extra time, and time on their part too, and lots of moving parts to get there,” says Hennessy. “There’s a deep worry and concern for kids in the Emerging Bilingual program who are learning English as a second or third language and have already felt very disconnected from Lincoln,” adds Hennessy. 

PPS has implemented a cohort model that provides weekly check-ins with students and an attendance system to help prevent students who are feeling “overwhelmed or not connected to Lincoln” from “shutting down” during this period of online learning, according to Hennessy. 

“[We take] weekly attendance, so we report every week who we are not in touch with, and then the counselors reach out to those families, to say ‘hey we haven’t seen your kiddo,’ and try to reconnect them, so that for me feels like an effort that is important,” says Hennessy.  

Students have also benefited from the Remind app, a free platform where teachers can reach out to their students. 

“That, for me, is huge because I think email is a very adult-centric form of communication, and Remind allows us to communicate via text, so that’s helpful,” Hennessy adds. 

Though the achievement gap is expected to widen due to disparity in access regarding online learning, Hennessy sees some possible positive outcomes.

“We’re not all going to know what we’re learning or developing from this time, for a couple, probably months or years later,” says Hennessy. “I think it is neat how many teachers are calling for this to be a moment to say ‘let’s not return to normal,’ because normal was really hectic and inequitable, and ‘let’s come to a time where we can slow down.’”