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New state data says pandemic’s impacts to students are a ‘call to action’

standardized testing
Utah student performance during the 2020-21 school year declined by more than two times that of New Orleans students impacted by Hurricane Katrina in some areas, according to a new report.

K-12 students had a much harder time during the pandemic, faced with abrupt changes, switching between online and in-person classes, as well as the wider emotional, economic and social stress caused by COVID-19.

All of that translated into “unprecedented” impacts on student performance and participation during the 2020-21 school year, according to new state data discussed at a Utah State Board of Education meeting Friday.

It found that both decreased significantly across all grade levels, subject areas and student groups, though the impacts were highest on historically underperforming students, such as low-income students and those learning English as a second language.

The report, compiled with help from the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, analyzed student participation and performance across seven standardized tests taken each year by students from Kindergarten through high school

In some cases, achievement during the 2020-21 school year declined by more than two times that of New Orleans students impacted by Hurricane Katrina — a common benchmark education researchers use to assess how students are affected by crises.

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

While the report is a first step in providing an overview of student impacts, the massive data compiling effort is ongoing, said USBE Assistant Superintendent of Student Learning Darin Nielsen. An even more exhaustive report is coming out next week, followed by potentially years of analysis.

Some of the areas of concern Nielsen highlighted Friday include a 5-8% decline in the number of 1st-3rd grade students meeting reading benchmarks compared to the 2019 school year. There was also a 5% decrease in the number of credits completed by high school students.

The report also tried to estimate how students who did not show up to class last year would have done, based on previous years’ scores. That reduced overall scores even more.

“This is a best case scenario of how these missing kids would have done,” said NCIEA researcher Leslie Keng. “The true effect is probably worse than what we're seeing here.”

Neilsen said while the report is concerning, the results, including participation rates, are still far better than researchers predicted early on.

“Even though we saw some pretty good drops in the number of students that participated in testing — as high as 10% fewer students for Utah Aspire Plus [a college readiness exam] — those reductions are not as high as many states across the country,” Keng said.

He said he owes part of that relative success to the expanded options students had this year, both by being able to take some tests remotely for the first time or having a longer window through which to sign up and complete them.

The tests that did not have a remote option are the ones that saw the biggest drops in participation.

Nielsen said while much more analysis is still needed, one of the primary benefits of having the report is that it provides researchers with a “treasure trove” of data to better understand not just how students are impacted through crises, but how to best provide support for years to come.

One thing USBE will be examining closely is the schools and students who bucked the broader trends. He said there were some schools where students actually made more progress than they had in previous years, though said he couldn’t share specifics at this point.

The report didn’t recommend specific strategies to tackle the learning loss. But Nielsen said it will likely take several years to recover.

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