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REL Midwest toolkit helps districts better understand students’ learning gaps related to the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures

Toolkt helps districts better understand learning gaps
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUImages

By Joni Wackwitz
May 18, 2021

We all remember March 2020 well. As the shockwave of the COVID-19 pandemic spread, schools across the United States began closing, and educators raced to shift learning online and provide remote support for students and families. Over time, some students had the opportunity to return to the classroom. Many others continued to learn from home, either by choice or circumstance.

Now, with many students back in the classroom or returning this fall, a free REL Midwest toolkit can help districts identify the essential knowledge and skills that students need to master and provide targeted supports. Developed in partnership with the Ohio Department of Education, the toolkit is designed to guide district teams in assessing learning changes across grades, subject areas, and student groups; identify where there may be gaps in learning; and use that information to plan and adjust student services and instruction.

Teams with a range of analytical experience and capacity can use the toolkit, including districts with limited access to student testing data. Consisting of five modules, the toolkit walks districts through the steps needed for data collection, analysis, and planning. Additional resources include guidelines for structured team discussions, workbooks to plan and record activities, and a decision tree to aid districts in deciding next steps as they progress through the modules.

Susan Burkhauser, PhD, a REL Midwest researcher, explained that districts can use the toolkit to better understand the needs and experiences of specific groups of students or even families and staff. “For example, district leaders may be concerned that English learner students experienced learning gaps after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Burkhauser said. “These districts could use the toolkit to take a closer look at their standardized testing data, determine whether this was the case, and if so, develop an action plan to target supports for that group, including determining what supports may be most helpful, for example, by fielding a survey to English learner teachers, students, and families.”

>> Read the flyer to learn more. Then download the toolkit modules and resources.

REL Midwest Assessing Learning Changes Toolkit

Introduction: Who should use this toolkit and for what purposes

Conducting analysis

Conducting analysis Toolkit

  • Module 1. Refining research questions, assessing capacity, and planning for analyses
  • Module 2. Cataloging and assessing data
  • Module 3. Conducting analyses and interpreting findings

Taking action

Taking action Toolkit

  • Module 4. New and complementary data collection activities
  • Module 5. Developing additional research questions, dissemination planning, and identifying resources


Planning category

  • Appendix A. District Decision Tree
  • Appendix B. Planning for Analysis Workbook, Worksheets 1A–1D (Modules 1–3)
  • Appendix C. Planning for Action Workbook, Worksheets 2A–2D (Modules 4–5)
  • Appendix D. Institute of Education Sciences Resources

Training on using the toolkit and related research

For districts that would like additional support, a recorded training session on using the toolkit is available. REL Midwest developed this training in collaboration with the Ohio Department of Education to provide the state’s regional data leads, who support districts in data use, and other district-level data analysts with guidance on using existing data and collecting new data to assess changes in student learning.

>> View a recording of the Ohio training and learn more.

REL Midwest staff also delivered a customized version of the training to a group of Illinois districts that were interested in but unable to participate in a larger REL Midwest study assessing learning changes across Illinois school districts. This study, which is being conducted in partnership with the Illinois State Board of Education, is analyzing assessment data from several Illinois districts that serve students in grades 3–8 to understand the relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and student learning, as measured by reading and mathematics assessment scores. In addition, the study is examining how this relationship varied across different groups of students and districts. Check back for the findings later this year.

“The COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented challenges globally to student instruction and learning growth,” said Dominique Bradley, PhD, a REL Midwest researcher. “We created this toolkit with the hope that it will help districts use the data they have currently to understand the magnitude of challenges that arose from the pandemic. It equips districts with a step-by-step resource to support all students as we emerge from the events of the past year.”

Related resources

For more information on assessing and addressing COVID-19 learning gaps, preventing summer learning loss, and supporting students as they return to in-person learning, see the resources below:

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Author information

Joni Wackwitz Staff Picture

Joni Wackwitz

Senior Communications Specialist | REL Midwest


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