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Here’s how much Utah students’ test scores declined during the pandemic

Some decline was expected, but the state said it was worse than its worst-case scenarios.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A teacher guides her students back to class in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Oct. 27, 2021. Schools across the state saw significant dips in test scores for students during the pandemic that crossed every grade level, subject matter and demographic group. But students of color were impacted the worst.

Student test scores in Utah dropped across every grade level, subject area, exam type and demographic group last year — a staggering display of the learning losses that have occurred during the pandemic.

Literacy rates dipped 5% for kindergartners here. Math scores saw the biggest declines overall in the state. High schoolers tested lower for college readiness than ever before. And the achievement gaps that existed before COVID-19 for low-income students and students of color have widened.

The decreases were largely expected. But not by this much, said Darin Nielsen, the state’s assistant superintendent of student learning, and not with such a disparate effect on kids from underrepresented backgrounds.

“Despite heroic efforts by teachers and leaders during the past two school years, the results reveal unprecedented impacts on both student participation and academic achievement,” he said during a somber report on the numbers Friday to the Utah State Board of Education.

The scores for spring 2021 are down significantly when compared to the same time in 2019, the last full school year before COVID-19. Year-end standardized testing was canceled for 2020 when all classes shifted online that March.

Nielsen, along with the national Center for Assessment, studied the Utah scores extensively, looking at data from seven different exams given to students in various grades. Those include: literacy and numeracy tests for kindergartners, reading benchmarks for grades one through three, the RISE standardized assessments for grades three through eight (that include math, language arts and science), and the ACT given to all 11th graders in Utah.

One hurdle in comparing the data is that far fewer students took the tests in 2021 than 2019. Parents are allowed to opt their kids out in Utah, and a significant number did this spring, about 6,000 per grade level for the RISE tests.

Most of those who didn’t participate this year come from underrepresented backgrounds, largely students of color and English language learners. Those students were less likely to test and more likely to score lower this spring if they did, a product of the gap in achievement with schools not doing enough to help diverse students succeed and doing even less with those efforts during the pandemic.

The dips held for every racial and ethnic group, as well as for students with disabilities and those from low-income households. Nielsen noted the disparity on nearly every slide in his presentation.

So that the numbers were not artificially skewed by the lack of representation in those taking the tests, Nielsen presented average test scores to the board for 2019 that matched the population demographics for those who did end up testing in 2021. With that, the “pandemic effect” on the numbers still produced declines across every metric.

The largest drops for standardized testing were for sixth graders in language arts — which saw a decrease in student proficiency of 54% — and fifth graders in math — which saw a decrease of 39%.

For seventh grade math, the 2019 mean exam score was 440. That still is ten points below proficient. And for 2021, that dropped to 429.

The Aspire Plus test given to 9th and 10th graders saw more than 20% drops for each level in math.

And the average composite ACT score for 11th graders went from 19.8 to 19.6. Nielsen said that is “comparable to one month of lost instruction.”

High schoolers, overall, also completed fewer credits than normal, dropping from 10% uncompleted classes to 15%.

Additionally, reading benchmark scores this past spring dropped the most for first graders — many of whom were learning to read for the first time with the extra difficulty of virtual school.

When first through third graders were tested for reading with the Acadience exam right before the pandemic, 69% were succeeding. A year later, 62% were.

And from the end of the year of 2019 to 2021, there was a decline from 71% to 64%. Similar drops showed up for kindergartners with literacy, too.

All of those categories and exams would drop even further if Nielsen estimated scores for the students who didn’t test. He calls them the “missing students” and said he believes the impact from the pandemic was the worst for them (and might have led some parents to not have them tested this spring). He warned the state school board of an “academic spiral” for those who need the most help.

“The true effect is probably worse than what we’re seeing here,” added Leslie Keng with the Center for Assessment.

The report on the numbers noted, too: “In some cases, we observe over two times the declines in student achievement in Utah compared to the effects attributed to Hurricane Katrina on students from New Orleans.”

Nielsen urged school board members to invest in interventions to help students, including spending federal education grant money on reading assistance and math tutoring. Without it, he said, some students won’t catch back up.

He said the losses in learning will not be fixed in a matter of months and might not be fixed by the time the federal funding to address the impacts of COVID-19 on education expires in September 2024. But, he said, the scores shine a line on the worsening disparities that must be addressed. He anticipates releasing a full report next week.

Nielsen said: “These results must be interpreted as a call to action from the statehouse to the schoolhouse.”

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