BISMARCK — In preliminary discussions, North Dakota lawmakers showed support for increasing the length of the K-12 school year due to the coronavirus pandemic hindering test performance and overall learning for many students.

State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler testified at a committee hearing of the House Appropriations Education and Environment Division on Wednesday, Jan. 13, and told legislators that K-12 student test scores have dropped in North Dakota.

About 27% to 28% of students who tested on par with their grade level in fall 2019 tested below their grade level in fall 2020 in reading, writing and math, Baesler said. She said a summer learning gap is normal and expected, but the pandemic and distance learning has exacerbated the current setbacks the state is seeing.

Lawmakers on Wednesday said a pandemic learning gap is a serious concern, and Baesler said a solution could be lengthening the school year to get students back on track.

"When you spend more time learning, you get better at it and you learn more," Baesler said in an interview.

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Baesler said it's too soon to say whether this school year or future school years would be extended and what a longer school year would look like. Lawmakers, along with Baesler, discussed school year structures that other states have, like a nine weeks on, two weeks off yearlong model or an increased number of required hours a school must hold instruction.

In 2019, the Legislature changed North Dakota law to require 962.5 hours of instruction for elementary schools and 1,050 hours for secondary schools. Schools can currently decide how to use those hours, and if the Legislature were to increase the number of required hours, it could also continue to allow districts to create their own calendars.

Committee members told Baesler to draft a plan to bridge the learning gaps created by the pandemic. The committee's chairman, Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, said the committee might need to consider yearlong school to get students caught up.

"We've got kids here that haven't been in the classroom for the better part of the school year," Monson said. "We almost need to go to a 10-month or 11-month or year-round school, and other countries are doing that." Baesler added that other states are doing so as well.

Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, told Baesler that "time is absolutely critical" because students need to be caught up now, otherwise the learning gap could worsen.

"If these kids don't catch up, then they'll never catch up," Martinson said during the hearing. He told Baesler to create a plan to get students back on track and that he was sure many lawmakers would back her up.

"If you need legislatively for us to take some heat for whatever you're going to propose — bring it to us," Martinson said.

Though she was just tasked with creating a plan to increase "learning recovery" on Wednesday, Baesler said lengthening the school year will definitely be "an option on the table."

"I think the only way we're going to accelerate this learning recovery is to provide additional instruction and additional learning," Baesler said, adding that it is a priority to have the additional instruction be primarily face-to-face learning.

Baesler said many families have told the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction that their students are not performing as well with distance learning in comparison to face-to-face instruction in previous years.

The department will begin outreach to teachers and administrators to get feedback and determine the best way to increase learning that's been lost due to COVID-19, Baesler said. The department also plans to reach out to other education departments and state legislatures to see what is being implemented elsewhere, as this pandemic learning gap is occurring nationwide.

While it's too early to tell what form her plan will take, Baesler is stressing the importance of engaging with local school districts and stakeholders to ensure whatever plan is adopted is thoroughly researched and evidence-based.

"We need to determine what would be the best path forward for North Dakota," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.