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In first assessment since pandemic, Washington student test scores drop significantly

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Last fall, hundreds of thousands of Washington state students took their first state exams since the pandemic began. Their scores took a hit.

Between 2019 and 2021, the overall percentage of students who met state standards on the math portion of the exam fell by 20 percentage points. Just 30% of kids — public school students enrolled in grades 4 through 11 — met standards in math. In English, the portion of kids who met the standard fell by 9 percentage points.

“The pandemic affected students overall. The assessment scores reinforce that,” said Deb Came, assistant superintendent of assessment and student information at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

State education officials were quick to caution against putting much stock in the numbers. But some outside observers said the scores could show where to direct resources, especially at a time when the federal government has deployed billions of dollars to help schools improve students’ academics during the pandemic.

“Test scores don’t tell us everything, but they tell us something,” said Marguerite Roza, a Seattle-based education finance professor at Georgetown University.

The tests this year brought already low scores to dramatic depths: Just 16.5% of kids living in poverty had proficient scores in math. Among English learners, it was 5.5%.

Because of a waiver of some federal testing requirements, students took the assessment — which was shorter compared to prior years — in the fall, instead of the spring. They tested on the material they learned last year, meaning fourth graders took the test they normally would have taken as third graders. The participation rates were also lower compared to prior years, especially among kids in high school. Overall, around 91% of students participated who were eligible, compared to 97% during the 2018-2019 school year.

“We’re not gonna spend a lot of energy here because there’s too many factors that are unique,” said state Superintendent Chris Reykdal during a Jan. 7 news conference when the scores were announced. Though his office hasn’t yet performed a full analysis nor released school district-level data yet, he said a preliminary look didn’t show significant differences in the scores in districts where kids were learning remotely the longest, something that surprised him.

After watching a recording of Reykdal’s speech at the news conference, Roza said she was shocked by the lack of emphasis on the scores.

She pointed out the 24% proficiency rate in math for 11th graders and the 46% rate for fourth graders in reading.

“When are these 11th graders going to catch up to speed? Because they’re a year and half from graduating,” she said. “ … They are screaming something at us, and if we’re not doing something about it, there’s a generation of kids that are going to be impacted,” said Roza.

These numbers are the first statewide academic assessment of students’ progress since the pandemic began. Districts have been testing kids on a smaller scale in the interim. Last spring, OSPI administered a voluntary survey aimed at sixth through 12th graders about their academic and emotional needs during the pandemic. More than half of middle schoolers surveyed said they found schoolwork harder and felt they learned less.

As districts review their data, it will be important for them to come up with a way to track their progress as they catch students up, said David Knight, an education professor at the University of Washington.

“I would say that it’s not good news — but not entirely surprising. We know that poverty is the biggest impediment to success in the classroom,” said Knight. “Low-income households were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. I think the important thing now is that we not let up in our pursuit to close gaps.”

Test scores are down all across the country, from Kansas to Vermont. Using their coronavirus stimulus relief funds, states like Tennessee have deployed competitive grant programs enticing districts to create tutoring programs.

A majority of about 1,000 educators in a nationally representative survey reported feeling concerned about the latest test scores in their school or district this fall, according to Education Week.

Washington state received $1.6 billion in the latest round of federal relief aid for schools. One-fifth of that money — or $334 million — must be spent on efforts to combat learning loss among students. As of November 2021, districts had spent only about 7% of that academic recovery money.

OSPI, which receives 10% of the federal relief money, says it has begun investing in various pilot programs to enhance math teaching and literacy outcomes. About $12 million will go to community-based organizations to fund academic enrichment programs for students, for example.

Those investments were laid out in a plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education drafted before the latest test scores were released. Reykdal said he isn’t keen on shifting direction before he sees results from another round of testing in the spring.

“What I’m not gonna do is use a very obscure assessment that we’ve never done in fall, on prior year’s learning, to make all of the decisions,” said Reykdal.

Most of the federal academic recovery money, 90%, goes straight to school districts to use at their discretion.

“The biggest input we can have is challenging districts, encouraging them to prioritize early literacy and math, which we have been doing from day one,” he said.

Without other data to balance, it could be a risk to put off concern about the scores, said Roza.

“If kids are not reading by fourth grade … it takes a monumental effort to intervene.”

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