Utah student test scores have started to rebound after disruptions from COVID-19 — but they continue to lag behind where they were prior to the pandemic.
The Utah Board of Education released data on student test scores Tuesday as part of its annual school report cards that are based, in large part, on achievement levels. Across almost every grade level and subject area, students tested better for the most recently completed 2021-22 school year than they did in 2020-2021, which was still heavily impacted by the coronavirus.
But the spring 2022 scores fell short of the scores from 2019, before the pandemic.
For example, 66% of second graders tested at or above the benchmarks for reading in spring 2022. That’s up from 64% in spring 2021. But it’s down from 71% in 2019.
(There are no test scores from spring 2020 because schools moved online that March due to the virus, and year-end exams were canceled.)
“This report gives us a clear-eyed picture of what happened,” said State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson in a statement Tuesday. “While the academic impact was not as bad as many feared, it shows us that students and teachers are on the road to academic recovery while not yet reaching the guidepost of excellence.”
Mathematics, in particular, saw a nice bump in student proficiency levels statewide this past school year. Many schools saw improvements, too, in their overall school grades, which in addition to test scores, are also based on graduation rates, student attendance and the growth in learning of their most disadvantaged students.
The grades are available for every public K-12 school and charter in the state at utahschoolgrades.schools.utah.gov. And here are seven statewide takeaways from the new numbers.
1. The pandemic had an outsized impact on reading scores and the youngest students.
Educators had feared that COVID-19 would have the biggest harm for the youngest students, who learn crucial reading skills in their first few years of school. The data shows that is what happened in Utah schools.
First, second and third graders take what’s called the Acadience Reading assessment. Across all three grade levels, scores dipped in spring 2021 during the pandemic. That means fewer students tested at or above benchmark for literacy.
First graders saw the biggest dive in percentage points. They went from 67% at or above benchmark in 2019, prior to the pandemic, to 59% in 2021, during the pandemic.
In 2022, they rebounded slightly to 60%. Third graders similarly saw just a 1% improvement from 2021 to 2022, going from 69% to 70%. They were at 74% prior to the pandemic.
First graders also continued to struggle, overall, in growth scores. Those measure how much a student improved from the start of the year to the end of the year. Those remained below pandemic levels in 2022.
This spring, 62% of first graders were measured as making progress. In 2019 and 2021, 66% were.
But second graders, meanwhile, rebounded and actually surpassed pre-pandemic levels. They dipped from 68% in 2019 to 64% in 2021. And they’ve now landed at 69% in 2022.
That’s a good indicator that the impact on first graders should hopefully be short-lived. That’s because the second graders who are now making fast progress were first graders in the 2020-21 school year that was most impacted by the pandemic, with some schools only providing online learning and many absences due to sickness.
2. American Indian and Alaskan students are not displaying the same recovery.
COVID-19 statistics have shown that communities of color across the country were more heavily impacted by the virus.
Now, Utah students of American Indian or Alaskan heritage are not making the same recoveries in achievement as their peers, the Board of Education noted in its report. Other racial and ethnic groups saw improvements from 2021 to 2022, it said, although it didn’t break down test scores by race.
3. Standardized test scores increased statewide for math.
The year-end RISE exams administered in grades 3-8 for math and language arts and 4-8 for science showed improvement mostly across the board from 2021. But math saw the best increases.
Overall, 32.5% of students in Utah were at or above proficiency for math in 2022, up from 32.4% in spring 2021.
Fourth graders had among the highest achievement levels in the subject — returning to the pre-pandemic level of 49% in 2022 that they had in 2019. In 2021, it had gone down slightly, to 45%.
Every other grade improved from 2021, except 8th graders, who stayed the same at 37%.
4. There was less improvement in language arts than hoped for.
Eighth graders actually back-tracked in language arts test scores for 2022 from 2021. They were at 42% this spring from 43% in 2021 and 2019.
Meanwhile, 7th graders remained flat at 41% in both 2022 and 2022, down from 44% in 2019. And the other grades saw more small-scale improvements.
Science scores for the RISE tests were slightly better, but similar.
5. High school scores are a mixed bag — but reading struggles persist.
Ninth and 10th graders in the state take the Utah Aspire Plus test. But an estimated 6 to 10% fewer opted out of the test in spring 2022 than in 2019. That makes the data difficult to compare across the years.
Still, reading scores for 9th and 10th graders continued to dip this spring, below the 2021 pandemic levels.
The data shows that 48% of 9th grades were proficient in reading in 2019. That declined to 43% in 2021 and again to 41% in 2022.
For 10th graders, the scores were 48% prior to the pandemic in 2019 and actually bumped up to 51% in 2021. But for spring 2022, the levels dipped to 42%.
Math scores for both grades improved from 2021 but remained below pre-pandemic levels.
6. ACT scores went up slightly for 11th graders — but dropped for all high schoolers combined.
The ACT standardized test is administered to all 11th graders in the state. And their scores inched back to the 2019 level this past spring.
Out of 36 points possible, the average score in the state was 19.7. That’s up from 19.6 in 2021.
But in looking at all high schoolers, combined, taking the test, the composite score fell a bit.
The average in 2022 for 9th through 12th graders taking the test was 19.9; that’s down from 20.6 from 2021. It was slightly lower in 2019 at 20.3.
Scores dipped in every subject, too. That includes math, science, English and reading. And they declined for every racial and ethnic group, except Native American students, who stayed the same.
Similarly, the scores nationwide also dropped. In 2021, for all high schoolers in the country who took the exam, the average score was 20.3. That dropped to 19.8 for 2022. It’s the first time the average has dropped below 20 since 1991, according to a news release from the test’s administrators released on Wednesday.
7. Attendance is down for 2022.
Of the things that didn’t rebound this spring, include attendance by high schoolers.
Consistent attendance among Utah students in grades 9-12 fell to 75.5%, down from 82.5% in 2021 and 91.1% in 2019.
It’s possible that more were counted as having “attended” when classes were online in 2021. But the dip from 2019 is significant.
THE CHALLENGES OF COMPARING PAST AND NEW UTAH SCORES
It’s difficult to compare this year’s overall school grades to previous years — because Utah has changed its school grading system repeatedly since the 2016-17 academic year. That was the last year schools got letter grades until they resumed for 2021-22.
Here’s what happened in between:
• For 2017-18, lawmakers allowed the Utah Board of Education to try a new system. In four categories, schools were given marks of exemplary, commendable, typical, developing or critical needs. The categories were achievement, growth, proficiency of English language learners and college readiness.
• For 2018-19, the state used the alternate marks again after glitches in the administration of year-end exams.
• For 2019-20, there were no school grades because year-end exams were canceled due to the pandemic.
• In the 2020-21 school year, year-end exams were given but school grades were not — because they are based, in part, on growth from the previous year, for which there was no data.
• For 2021-22, school grades returned for individual schools while school districts continued to receive the alternative marks.