Citing the lingering effects of the pandemic, one school administrator told the Board of Education on Thursday night, April 20, that the district needs to “double down” on its efforts to catch students up and close the learning gaps.
In defending their ongoing efforts to do so, however, Cider Mill School‘s principal said part of the reason rests with extra time needed in classrooms to address social and emotional behavioral needs — another post-pandemic impact.
In presenting the latest MAP test scores, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Charles (Chuck) Smith theorized that some teaching has been “distracted” away from a focus on “unfinished learning” — something he said he cautioned about last year.
“A lot of people think the pandemic is over,” he said. “Pandemic-related unfinished learning is not over, and we need to maintain the level of urgency that we had last year.”
“We have persistent achievement gaps,” he continued, “and so those practices that brought around the growth last year really need to be again part of business as usual in Wilton.”
In particular, Smith said students in grades four and five represented “vulnerable cohorts,” as their initial educational experiences were tarnished by the pandemic and subsequent practices used in school, such as distance learning.
Board member Jennifer Lalor questioned the district’s response to this information.
“If you guys have shared this and discussed it, why is it not happening?” she said of refocused intervention.
Smith said there was a human tendency for one to sit on their laurels after achieving a specific goal — in this case, last year’s better results — but he ultimately said he had no answer.
“We made some really great achievements (but) I think the going back to normal … for many of our teachers is to go back to doing things the way they were,” he said, adding, “I think it’s natural.”
Smith pointed out, however, that the situation wasn’t the same across all schools and teams.
“Jen, I really do think it is happening in some places,” he said. “Like everything else here in Wilton, it’s the level of consistency, how you build it in.”
“In some of our schools I think they’ve been distracted by other things,” he said.
Cider Mill principal Dr. Jennifer Falcone spoke adamantly in defense of her staff, inviting board members to visit and see for themselves what measures were being taken to augment unfinished learning, despite weaker numbers than Middlebrook or Miller-Driscoll Schools.
“I do not believe it’s business as usual … You can watch the responsive lesson planning in process. It’s something we’ve been doing since the beginning of the year,” she said.
Falcone said teachers are, likewise, concerned about the results and “taking this very seriously.”
“It is concerning,” Falcone said. “I’m not denying that. That is not where we want our scores to be.”
She said teachers have been working on various strategies to steer improvements, including teaching students how to navigate the language of the tests themselves, sharing ideas and resources with one another, and even trying to cut down on performance events and concerts in order to keep more instructional time in place.
One challenge, she said, that is “consistently” being dealt with are SEL, or social and emotional learning behavioral issues with students.
“The SEL behavioral needs that we have going on on a regular basis with our students is significant,” she said. “I mean, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be growing, but it does impact the level of consistent exchange … I can believe that that is a barrier right now at times.”
Falcone said on that particular day she had to deal with five separate classroom incidents involving SEL behavioral issues. While she said it wasn’t an excuse, it was part of the problem.
“It only takes a couple of kids to blow up a building,” one board member said.
Board Chair Ruth DeLuca said the information gave her pause to think.
“I guess I’m concerned about the trend,” she said. “I think that’s what’s most concerning to me. Last year everything trended one way and this year everything is trending a completely different way.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kevin Smith said that on Wednesday, April 26, there were focus groups planned with teachers to discuss the situation.
“I would be interested to hear from teachers where they see things are different, especially as kids are exiting Cider Mill,” DeLuca said.
She speculated that it could be that the districut was trying to get too much done at once, or that problems existed prior to the pandemic.
“Maybe, was the normal before this really working to begin with?” she asked.
MAP is a computerized adaptive test, as opposed to a traditional standardized test, which tailors its questions and the testing process to individual students in an effort to obtain a more accurate record of progress. The test is produced by NWEA, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that specializes in creating assessment resources.
The untimed tests, which most students complete in under an hour, are given three times a year by Wilton Public Schools, which began using them in 2015. The district says the tests provide individualized data that allows teachers to adjust and tailor teaching strategies for individual students as well as assess group performance and progress.