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The pandemic widened the education gap for students of color

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Parents and educators are concerned about the adverse effects the pandemic has had on student achievement. Elementary and middle school students in the U.S. saw sharp declines in math and reading scores compared to 2019, and the pandemic widened the gap for students of color. Amalia Chamorro is the education policy director for UnidosUS. The organization is tracking how Latino students fared during the pandemic. She joins me now. Welcome.

AMALIA CHAMORRO: Hi, Ayesha. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: I want to dig into some of the data that you guys have found. I mean, so it shows that reading percentiles fell nine points for Latino third graders, compared to five points for non-Latino students. And it's worse for the math scores, where it fell 13 points for Latino students. You know, your group saw this downward shift across all grade levels. How else did the pandemic hurt education performance for these students?

CHAMORRO: We know that the disruption and the swift shift to virtual remote learning really had an impact on Latino students and their families because at the onset of the pandemic, when everything really changed overnight and students, parents and educators had to go almost 100% remote, we knew that a third of Latino households did not have high-speed internet. And about 17% of Latino households did not have a device. So even though we know that many schools stepped up and provided the broadband and the devices, the computers and the tablets, over the next few months, we knew that that had a deep impact on students to be able to continue to participate in that learning.

RASCOE: And, you know, some Latino students have, you know, other things that they have to deal with, like English not necessarily being their first language. What about those English-as-a-second-language learners? How were they impacted?

CHAMORRO: Yeah, we were particularly concerned about our English learners. And we knew that, according to a study that the Department of Education had released back in 2019, that English learner teachers have not received the same level of professional development and digital instruction as general teachers. So that's one issue. At the same time, many English learners come from families with lower income who may have had even less access to broadband and devices.

RASCOE: And was access to broadband - was that, like, the main challenge that was preventing the learning, the remote learning? I mean, I know with my kids, it was just difficult to learn when you're not in the classroom. Like, it's just such a different experience.

CHAMORRO: Right. That was one issue, the lack of connectivity and devices, and also the fact that many families did not have the tools and the training - right? - to be able to actually be able to navigate those platforms and help their children at home for the parents that were able to spend time at home - because Latino families - many parents and caregivers were essential workers, and many of them did get sick. And unfortunately, we saw poor students of color disproportionately lost a parent or caregiver due to the COVID. And so you had also older siblings stepping up to help their younger siblings. And so then we saw impact on the high-school-level students, as well, because we did see a decline in high school graduation rates for Latino students after having achieved an all-time record high high-school graduation of 82% in 2019.

RASCOE: Can you tell me a little bit more about what the academic picture was looking like before the pandemic? Because you said that there was, like, a record number of Latino high school graduates.

CHAMORRO: Sure. Over the last 30 years, Latino students have been making progress in some key areas, including the high school graduation rate, but also higher achievement in math and reading, as well, and English learners who have made strides in terms of their language development and academic outcomes. So we had seen some of those key milestones reached, while we also knew that there were inequities that continue to persist in the system.

RASCOE: What can educators do, what can policymakers do to course correct, to account, as you talked about, not just for the pandemic but for the gaps that already existed even before this?

CHAMORRO: So in the report that we released, we do include a set of policy recommendations. And, you know, one big opportunity is all of the federal relief funding that was provided in the last couple of years to states and in turn to local education agencies. And it's really important for those decisions to be informed by the data and making sure that that funding is equitable, not only to the students and the schools with the highest needs but making sure that we have, you know, the students that struggle the most, students with disabilities, English learners, students who attend high-poverty schools - to get the supports that they need to be able to make that recovery.

RASCOE: That's Amalia Chamorro, education policy director at UnidosUS. Thank you so much for talking with us.

CHAMORRO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.