AUSTIN, Texas – Scores from the first U.S. standardized tests taken during the pandemic provide a first glimpse of how far behind students are, with some states reporting that the hectic year has reversed years of academic progress.
Texas education officials presented a grim report on Monday as the state became one of the first to release full results from its spring exams. The percentage of students reading at their grade level has fallen to the lowest levels since 2017, while math scores have fallen to their lowest point since 2013. In total, around 800,000 more students are now behind by compared to their grade level in math, according to the state.
“The impact of the coronavirus on what school means and what school is has been really profound”, said Mike Morath, state education commissioner. âIt will take many years of change and support to help children catch up. “
Other states have shared glimpses of alarming results.
In Florida, officials said reading scores fell 4 percentage points from 2019, the last time statewide tests were administered. In Indiana, state officials warn of declining reading scores and a “Significant drop” in math.
Experts warn that low turnout rates in some regions could leave entire states with unreliable data, and that even within states there are pockets where many families have retreated. In Texas, 86% of students took the tests this spring, compared to a typical rate of 96%.
Yet early results provide some of the strongest data to date detailing the effects of the March 2020 school closures, the shift to virtual learning, and the associated disruption. They also align with trends seen in national studies over the past year: students lag behind in reading and even further behind in math.
The setbacks are most pronounced among students of color and those from low-income families. Across all groups of students, those who spent more time learning in person performed better on exams.
“It’s a little sickening to see the bottom fall for so many children” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. âIt is clear that distance learning has affected the most vulnerable children the most. It’s what we expected, but it’s still hard to see.
Morath said the results underscore the need for a strong return to in-person learning this fall. In districts with large numbers of students learning online, the proportion of those below math standards increased by 32 percentage points. In districts with more in-person learning, by comparison, the failure rate increased by 9 points.
This gap was larger than the differences between students based on race or income, but the data also found that white students had higher scores than their black and Hispanic peers, and students from larger families. rich had much higher scores than those from poverty.
“These are not numbers, they are children” Morath said, âAnd that represents how much we have supported them in their continued academic growth. “
He called on school districts that were slower to return to in-person learning, including in El Paso, saying they had seen larger learning setbacks compared to rural schools that have reopened classrooms. quickly. In the independent school district of El Paso, 64% of eighth-graders failed to meet math standards this spring, up from 20% in 2019, according to state data.
El Paso Teachers Association president Norma De La Rosa said teachers were doing their best with virtual education, although the model prevented them from paying special attention to children who might have need it.
The district of El Paso maintained online education until January, when the state threatened to withdraw funding from schools that did not offer in-person learning. During distance learning, some families spent long periods in Mexico and many others struggled to access the Internet. Given these challenges, said De La Rosa, the test results are not surprising.
Clay Robison, spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, said the data shows there is no substitute for in-person learning. But he also said giving families the opportunity to learn remotely has likely prevented more deaths from COVID-19.
“We were in the midst of a deadly pandemic and we are sure it saved the lives of some students, it saved the lives of some school employees, it saved the lives of some of their family members and c ‘was necessary, âhe added. said Robison. âFortunately, most of the students and teachers in Texas lived to learn another day. “
In typical years, Texas uses its annual tests to assess schools and determine whether students can progress to the next level. But state officials have suspended those measures during the pandemic and said testing should be used to identify students who need help the most. All students who failed to meet test standards will be eligible for intensive tutoring next year under new legislation passed by lawmakers last month.
In Indiana, which is expected to release test results this week, lawmakers have passed a “To remain harmless” the bill so that bad test scores are not used against teachers or schools. The state has also set aside $ 150 million to tackle learning loss, much of which is spent in grants to expand summer apprenticeship programs.
Students across the United States were given a year off from federally required testing last year after the Trump administration suspended exams while the coronavirus raged. But the Biden administration has ordered states to retake exams this year with new flexibility. States have been ordered not to order students to come to school only to take tests, and the Department of Education has given some states additional leeway to change exams or test fewer students .
Some states continued to push for a complete test cancellation, including New York, Michigan and Georgia. The Education Department rejected their requests but allowed Washington, DC to skip exams because 88% of students were still learning remotely.
The uneven flexibility has drawn criticism from testing advocates who say it has created a patchwork of state testing plans. With so much variation, they say, it will be difficult to get a clear national picture of the impact of the pandemic.
Education experts are particularly concerned about students who will not show up in the new results. Those who chose not to take the exams are more likely to have learned remotely, the researchers say, and may be among the students who need help the most.
Lake, of the University of Washington, said she was concerned about homeless students, as well as students learning English and those with special needs. She fears that they are part of the “missing children” who has not done any tests.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg” said the lake. âThese numbers are the very beginning of what we are starting to understand. And it is possible that these children will continue to decline if there is no early intervention. “