CENTREVILLE — Queen Anne’s County Public Schools (QACPS) has positioned its annual goal-setting plan to address the learning gap caused by the need for virtual learning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data presented to the board earlier this month showed a significant decrease in early literacy and math skills at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year when compared to school years preceding the pandemic.

In terms of literacy, based on Rigby Running Records, an assessment designed to evaluate, monitor, and report reading comprehension, 55 percent of K-2 students were reading on or above grade level – a 24 percent decrease from the 2018-19 school year. And with math, QACPS reported a 25 percent decrease in K-8 students who advanced one math level by the end of the 2020-21 school year.

Virtual learning, according to QACPS data, also led to performance gaps for African American, Hispanic and Latino students, as well as students learning English, students who qualify for free and reduced meals, and students with disabilities who qualify for individualized education plans.

While QACPS cited students’ absence from the physical classroom as being the primary cause in both math and reading gaps, Tracy Kenna, the school system’s supervisor of accountability, assessment, and data management, pointed out that this was especially true for the early literacy issues, as second grade students returned to the classroom environment this fall for the first time since kindergarten.

“Our teachers did all that they could,” Kenna told the board during their Nov. 3 meeting. “But teaching phonemic awareness virtually is very difficult. So we have some ground to make up there.”

Kenna presented the data while highlighting the system’s Local Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Consolidated Strategic Plan, an annual report due to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) that defines areas of improvement and plans to resolve those issues.

The ESSA plan’s two areas of focus are to increase both the percentage of students reading on or above grade level and the percentage of students that advance one math level by the end of the 2021-22 school year.

According to a draft of the document available through the Board of Education’s Nov. 3 agenda, the school system will work towards both goals by offering programs to students that offer more individualized instruction and regular assessments.

For reading, students across all grade levels will have access to the Exact Path program, which offers “an adaptive and individualized learning path” in different settings, according to QACPS spokesperson Lanette Power-Waters. The program, on top of assessing students three times a year, will also assist in instruction, assist in small group learning, and monitor student progress.

K-2 students will also be given Fundation instruction. Fundation is a part of the Wilson Language Program that emphasizes several foundational reading skills, including reading fluency, vocabulary, comprehension strategies, handwriting, and spelling.

For math, grades K-2 will have access to the iReady Mathematics program – which also offers more individualized learning paths – while grades 3-5 will use it as their primary class instruction, according to the ESSA plan.

Students in grades 6-8 working to catch up on their math levels will have Math 180, a math intervention program for the Common Core, put in their schedule every other day. They will both practice on the computer and receive direct instruction.

Students using either of the math programs will also be assessed three times per year.

Additionally, math tutoring opportunities will be available before, during, and after school.

None of the math or reading programs are new to QACPS, Power-Waters said.

“We really are putting every effort into it,” Superintendent Dr. Patricia Saelens said during the board meeting, referring to the more individualized approach driving the school system’s solutions. “And we would hope that we can get back to where our numbers were pre-COVID.”

After reviewing the data, Board President Richard Smith asked that QACPS measure its recovery off of pre-COVID numbers, despite whatever plan of action or comparison MSDE requests. He acknowledged that “it’s going to be a challenge,” but said that if Queen Anne’s County only compares itself to other jurisdictions experiencing similar issues, “the bar [will be] too low.”

“That is going to be a tough climb,” Kenna responded. “But that is how we’ve been looking at the data.”

Luke Parker is an award-winning writer and journalist covering Queen Anne’s County. To send a tip, email lparker@chespub.com. For updates, like Luke Parker – Journalist on Facebook or follow him on Twitter: @lparkernews

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