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The data showed that 66 per cent of Black students achieved at or above Level 3 in reading in their January report cards, eight percentage points higher than January, 2019.Cole Burston/Getty Images

Black students in Toronto elementary schools improved in reading at twice the rate of white students and eight times the rate of their East Asian peers during the pandemic, according to an early analysis of report cards.

Amid concerns around learning gaps that children have faced over the past two years of disrupted schooling, the Toronto District School Board data have compelled staff to examine the circumstances that allowed more Black students to fare better in reading compared to their pre-pandemic report cards.

Karen Murray, who heads the TDSB’s newly created Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement, said that while “it is always a bright spot when achievement moves,” she was cautious. The percentage of Black students meeting provincial standards is still the lowest among groups by race, the TDSB data show.

“What is it that was done that allowed us to make a movement in a pandemic, recognizing that the data still doesn’t offset the fact that there is a huge gap still to make up?” Ms. Murray asked.

The data, contained in a June report to trustees, showed that 66 per cent of Black students achieved at or above Level 3 in reading – the provincial standard, which is equivalent to a B grade – in their January report cards. This was eight percentage points higher than January, 2019.

White students and East Asian students climbed four percentage points and one percentage point, respectively, over that same period. About 86 per cent of white children and 85 per cent of East Asians met provincial standards.

Ms. Murray said that many Black students learned online this past year, giving their families a unique window into classrooms. “I, educator, know that you’re there. The way I position the learning is going to be different, too,” she said.

In its report, the TDSB said while Black students had more room to grow academically compared to other groups, there could be other explanations for the rate of increase. Among them, students attending in-person could have benefitted from smaller class sizes “given their overrepresentation in schools that had much higher amounts … of students choosing to go to virtual schools this past year.”

The report also referenced a study that found Black students had to deal with racism by other students and educators while in school. “The digital learning environment that characterized much of schooling during the pandemic and the separation of the social setting of schools may have provided different opportunities for Black students to succeed,” the report stated.

The report stated that improvement rates of those who have struggled academically should be studied by educators “in order to reinforce any positive conditions that may have occurred during this time through partnerships, collaboration, relationship building, and understanding of prior knowledge and experience of students coming back to school in person.”

Mahaliah Thorpe’s two young sons learned remotely in their family’s apartment this past year (her third child is in high school). Her neighbourhood in the northwest corner of Toronto has experienced high COVID-19 infection rates.

Ms. Thorpe said she formed a “partnership” with her middle son’s online teacher. “I had more of a sense of what the curriculum was like,” she said.

With her younger son, she noticed that there was more reading being done in the online classroom than during his pre-pandemic in-class experience – and that reading included culturally relevant and age-appropriate texts. The work was also interactive, she said, with students sharing their written thoughts on the books they read. She said that her son, who will be entering Grade 3, did well in an environment that was less disruptive than a typical classroom.

Ms. Thorpe said that her children will return to the classroom in September, because they need the social interaction that comes with being in school.

Carl James, a professor at York University who has extensively studied anti-Black racism in education, said that while the TDSB data are encouraging, they require more work to understand from students what their situations were that allowed more of them to climb in their reading levels. Prof. James said he wondered if parents participated more in online classrooms, and whether students had to deal with fewer distractions that would have otherwise impeded their learning.

Prof. James said that in-person education is vital for students not only academically, but for their social development and well-being. Some students, he said, have felt isolated from their peers while learning at home. The data need a closer examination to see what can be changed to help students when they return to classrooms, he said.

“What have we been doing with these students over the years in the classroom that has not been working, or that has been disadvantageous to them?” he asked. Prof. James has worked with the TDSB and several other boards in the province to study the experiences of Black high-school students. He has recommended changes to further their engagement in school.

He said that many Black students have not fared well in secondary school. Research in Ontario has shown students from low-income families, Black students, those with Indigenous backgrounds and those with special needs are 4½ times more likely not to earn a high-school diploma.

“If we are going to really address the high-school situation of Black students, let’s look at what is happening early and what can these results tell us that we might intervene early in these educational trajectories for students to be able to guarantee their success,” Prof. James said.

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