Sydnee Dickson and Darin Nielsen: Acknowledge the resilience of Utah students, teachers and parents

Pandemic generation should be remembered for what they accomplished, not what they lost.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kindergarten students work out math addition problems on their tablets in Denise White's class at Riley Elementary School in Salt Lake City Tuesday April 10, 2018.

Media coverage of the recent release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, known as the nation’s report card, has often been dramatic. The pandemic was indeed a dramatic time in our lives.

Anyone reading this knows the pandemic’s effects on their work, home and social lives. This is true for the way our students and the adults who serve them experienced school as well.

Schools moved to remote learning in the spring of 2020, before state tests were administered, and at a time when only about two-thirds of high school juniors had taken the ACT. The remaining third were given vouchers to take the test elsewhere.

During the fall of 2020, the majority of our schools met in person while dealing with inconsistent attendance due to outbreaks. Mask mandates and occasional remote learning were also in place at some schools as outbreaks occurred in various parts of the state. Conditions for learning were less than ideal.

Now various test scores are being released nationally and locally that demonstrate just how much of a toll this took on our students. The news sounds grim. Student learning is facing a setback in response to everything that has been going on.

But, at least in Utah, there is also some good news to report. Utah students have shown a remarkable resiliency not seen everywhere in the country. Their efforts, along with assistance from parents, teachers, aids, counselors, administrators, cafeteria workers and bus drivers, point the way to recovery. Yes, recovery will take some time, but it is happening.

Eighth grade math and reading scores stayed statistically stable between 2019 and 2022, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And while fourth grade reading and math scores did drop, they did not drop as far as they did nationally. This means in both fourth and eighth grade, Utah’s scores are now in the top 10 in all four categories nationally.

Utah is being singled out from the other 49 states as a positive example by Peggy Carr, the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Of the states where at least 90 percent of students took the ACT, Utah students have the highest composite average score, as well as the highest percentage of students meeting each of the college readiness benchmarks according to the 2022 ACT Graduating Class report.

These indicators, while generally lower than 2019, give us confidence that our parents’ and educators’ efforts to position our students to withstand the pandemic-related disruptions, as well as accelerate our students’ academic achievement in 2022 should be commended.

It is clear that the academic impacts of the pandemic persist and many of our students need customized supports to adequately accelerate their learning, but our educators and parents – our children’s first teachers – should take a moment to recognize that their efforts are making a difference.

Summer programs, additional tutoring, professional learning and time for teachers, mental health supports, quality classroom materials and instructional strategies, are just a few of the ways federal and state dollars are being spent to support accelerated learning. We are already seeing the benefits of these investments.

Our students have learned to be resilient. Like their forebearers of the Greatest Generation who came through a world war, the Great Depression and a flu pandemic, they will be remembered not for what they have lost, but for how they learned to overcome challenges.

Getting off the frontage road of recovery and on the road to awesome will continue to be a community endeavor. Our students deserve our best efforts.

Sydnee Dickson

Sydnee Dickson has been serving the children of Utah as a proud educator for the past 41 years. She joined the Utah State Office of Education in 2007 and was named as state superintendent of public instruction in 2016. Prior to joining the Utah State Office of Education, Sydnee served in Utah public schools in roles including teaching, school counseling, school and district administration.

Darin Nielsen

Darin Nielsen has been a professional educator since 1995. He has worked for the Utah State Board of Education since October 2017 as their Assistant Superintendent of Student Learning where he provides leadership for the Teaching & Learning, Career & Technology Education, and Assessment & Accountability teams.