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Key things that schools can do to fight learning loss, according to experts

Karen Sama, a program director at 826 Boston, instructed tutors before the students arrived for their after-school program.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Recent results on national and state exams show the severity of the pandemic’s toll on student academic achievement.

Monday’s release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” shows Massachusetts students lost a decade or more of academic progress.

Experts believe that students’ catching up will require years-long intensive interventions to help close those gaps.

Here’s a look at some of those efforts.

Intensive tutoring

Researchers point to tutoring or small-group instruction as a key strategy for helping students. They said tutoring must be “high dosage,” or intensive, calling for at least 30 minutes multiple times a week in the subject areas where gaps are the greatest.

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Schools also must have a strong data system that properly and quickly identifies students who need this level of intervention before they fall behind.

Increasing instructional time

Experts said extending instructional time — including summer school, longer school days, or extended school years — also would help students get back on track. They also recommend so-called double blocking or double dosing of specific core subjects, meaning educators could double the amount of time students are taught in a particular subject, like math.

“I recognize that a lot of people might cringe at more time on academics when kids are feeling a lot of anxiety still and have experienced a lot of loss, and sometimes trauma from the pandemic,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, an education research center at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “We do have to be mindful of that, but it will not serve them well to ignore these critical gaps before they pay for it long-term.”

High-quality instruction

Training educators in best practices in reading or other critical subjects will allow them to better offer high-quality instruction for their students, experts said.

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For example, Massachusetts recently passed a mandate requiring schools to assess reading progress among students in kindergarten through at least third grade twice a year. The goal is to target efforts to improve early literacy. State education leaders said screenings may help teachers better identify struggling students and catch learning disabilities at earlier ages. Going forward, early-literacy interventions will be critical amid student learning losses, experts said.

Spending federal funds

Billions in federal relief dollars have been designated for schools to address learning gaps, but most of the money has yet to be spent.

Marguerite Roza, the director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, said there is urgency in tapping those funds now to pay for necessary interventions. She said parents and community members must press districts on how they are spending the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, or ESSER and whether the investments are producing positive outcomes for students. Parents also should be asking what specific plans their districts have to get their children back on grade level.

“I think some people may think this money is gone or forgot about it, but this is really the big spending school year,” Roza said. “So this is when we really need a lot of eyes on those investments.”


Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her @adriarwatson.