California is among the latest states to report slowed progress in assessment scores for the 2020-21 school year when compared to pre-pandemic results. Following national trends, the California Department of Education also found a widening achievement gap between student subgroups in the first full year of pandemic learning.
However, the department urged caution about the data. “The data is limited in both scope and use,” the department wrote in a news release. “COVID-19 not only created challenges for teaching and learning but also for the administration of the statewide assessments.”
States have varied in their testing and reporting timelines as well as participation rates due to extensions and flexibility in administering assessments. At the local level, however, districts have seen mixed results, with some even outperforming their projections.
Declines in state assessment scores confirm predictions that the COVID-10 pandemic would have a drastic effect on student performance.
In California, 49% of students met or exceeded English Language Arts standard and only about a third, or 34%, succeeded in math. In 2018-19, those percentages were at 51% and 40% respectively.
Washington, Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona, Louisiana and others follow similar trends
“The significant declines in both reading and math — especially in math — suggest that we’ll be talking about learning loss and recovery for decades,” said Dale Chu, assessment expert and independent education consultant, in an email.
The decline in academic progress, Chu noted, may actually be underestimated considering students in the most marginalized communities — who tend to test at lower proficiency rates — were also the ones most likely to opt out of exams last spring.
That trend also might be behind score increases in select areas.
Scott Marion, executive director for the Center for Assessment, said while he hasn’t noted many score increases this year, areas that have experienced higher than expected performance likely have lower participation rates, especially from students who tend to be lower-performing.
“It’s easy to get your scores to go up if you only test your highest achieving students,” he said.
Education officials in states and districts with lower participation rates have urged for numbers to be taken with a grain of salt and have warned against comparing the data to previous years’ performance.
“Fair enough,” Chu said, “though taken together with present challenges (e.g., teacher shortages, eleventh hour shifts to remote learning), one can’t help but wonder whether the groundwork is being laid yet again to waive out of testing this spring.”
After schools first shut down in March 2020, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued blanket waivers for state testing and accountability, a decision some state leaders want reissued.
But testing experts agree additional exemptions from testing would be especially detrimental in calculating student growth over time. And U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona previously pushed for continued assessment, bringing into question the likelihood of another round of waivers.
The scores also highlight for many the urgency of academic recovery.
With an infusion of federal aid, the last of which has been distributed to states from the American Rescue Plan, districts are focusing on academic interventions and piloting summer learning, tutoring and other programs.
However, Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, which tracks district spending trends, suggested states and districts have done a poor job tying the use of federal funds directly to student outcomes.
While there has been a lot of focus on tangentially related areas of concern — student mental health recovery, teacher retention and professional development, for example — leaders have not been explicit about how investments in those areas are linked to improving academic performance.
As a result, the road to recovery’s finish line seems mostly out of sight, Roza said.
“We're not actually talking about the fact that the test scores fell through the toilet,” Roza said. “If we don't emphasize the outcome we're trying to achieve, do the people who are in the school each day, the parents and everybody else see it?”