Schools start new year in the hole after pandemic drives down test scores
States across the country are looking to bounce back from declines in recently released standardized test scores that underscored the challenges of remote learning during the first full school year of the pandemic.
The drops from the 2020-2021 academic year varied across states and school districts, but many jurisdictions reported larger decreases for math exams compared to other subjects like language arts. In states like Michigan and Tennessee, some of the sharpest declines were among minorities, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students.
Experts are also sounding the alarm over plunging participation rates, saying that with many statewide tests canceled in 2020 and fewer students taking the annual exams last spring, educators might not know until around this time next year just how much progress was lost after the coronavirus disrupted in-school learning 18 months ago.
“Non-participants tend to be more of the at-risk groups,” said Marianne Perie, an independent consultant who advises states on student assessments. “We’re seeing minority, low-income and students with disabilities to be less likely to come into school and take the test, particularly in states where they weren’t already in school.”
In Arizona, just 511,679 students took the state’s language skills test, and 520,912 took the math test. Two years earlier, roughly 740,000 students took each exam. Arizona canceled the exams in 2020.
“It is impossible to know how the students who did not participate in the assessment may have scored,” Arizona education officials wrote in a note accompanying the results. “Students who were not assessed may need additional supports next school year than what the results of this report implies.”
In Tennessee, officials said test scores fell more sharply in the two school districts that taught their students primarily remotely last year. But those districts, which include schools in Memphis and Nashville, teach higher proportions of at-risk students, a factor potentially driving the gap, Perie said.
“We just don’t have the good data on how many hours students were remote versus how many hours they were in person,” Perie said. “That’s what we need to be able to do the analysis.”
Test scores are often used to assess school performance, but the Department of Education granted the vast majority of states waivers for federal accountability and other requirements during the 2020-2021 school year.
Some states are taking steps to suspend their own educational requirements. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) signed a bill on Aug. 30 to prevent last year’s standardized test results from affecting school performance grades.
Katharine Strunk, director of Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, said failing to account for the gaps among test-takers could prove problematic.
“If you’re going to only hold people accountable for certain groups of students who took the test, and you’re not going to think about how to adjust on those populations – and most districts won’t be able to adjust on the population – I think that that’s going to lead to a lot of trouble,” she said.
In Virginia, all schools are being given an “accreditation waived” rating. Officials announced late last month that 54 percent of students passed the Standards of Learning math exams, 59 percent passed science and 69 percent passed reading. The scores mark sharp drops from 2019, when about 82 percent passed math, 81 percent passed science and 78 percent passed reading.
While Virginia’s testing participation rates have typically approached 100 percent, at least 20 percent of eligible students did not take each of the three subject-specific exams last year.
Efforts to keep schools open during the pandemic is now playing out on the national stage. President Biden on Thursday announced that his administration would require the nearly 300,000 Head Start educators to be vaccinated in addition to those working at school and youth programs operated by the Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Education. He also called on governors to require vaccinations for all teachers and staff.
“We know that if schools follow the science and implement the safety measures – like testing, masking, adequate ventilation systems that we provided the money for, social distancing and vaccinations – then children can be safe from COVID-19 in schools,” Biden said.
Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have pushed back on Biden’s push for masks in schools, with an appeals court Friday granting DeSantis’s emergency appeal to reinstate a ban on school mask mandates.
Even as test scores have slipped, advocates and experts say educators’ efforts to adapt to remote learning helped mitigate the declines.
“It wasn’t a completely lost year,” said Abby Javurek, the vice president of future impact and growth at NWEA, a not-for-profit assessment creator formerly known as the Northwest Evaluation Association. “Our students did grow. They didn’t grow as much as we would hope and we would expect in a normal year without all these crazy circumstances, but they did grow, and there is hope in that.”
But she added that the scoring disparities underscore longstanding educational inequities among at-risk groups.
“It really calls to attention all the work that we have to do in our communities that were already marginalized prior to the pandemic hitting,” Javurek said.
As schools grapple with the highly infectious delta variant this fall, some have temporarily canceled classes or reverted to virtual learning, posing more challenges for students in the third academic year impacted by the pandemic.
“We’re not going to do anyone favors if we approach the need to accelerate learning by accelerating it in a way that has us putting significant chunks of content or just speeding through things to try to cram more in,” Javurek said. “But we will do good by our kids if we are pretty thoughtful about how we expand the learning time in some meaningful ways.”