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Sobering test results confirm pandemic’s toll on state’s schoolchildren

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Photo: Adobe Stock

State test results show that student learning suffered greatly last year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fewer than half of students – 45.4% – in grades K-12 passed state reading, math and science exams during the 2020-21 school year. 

The much-anticipated scores were released this week during the State Board of Education’s regular meeting. They reflect the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic and related disruptions affected the state’s 1.5 million schoolchildren, many of who spent most of the academic year learning remotely. 

“Educators, administrators, parents and many others concerned about the education of North Carolina’s children will have access to data that will deepen their understanding of the effects of the past 18 months on our students’ growth and proficiency and will guide efforts to recover from the losses we know have occurred,” said Jill Camnitz, chairwoman of the board’s Student Learning and Achievement Committee. 

Click here to see complete testing results on the NC Department of Public Instruction’s website. [2] 

A significant decline

The 45.4% proficiency rate for the 2020-21 school year compares with the 58.8% passing rate for 2018-19, a drop of more than 13 percentage points. Tests were waived for the 2019-20 school year due to the pandemic, but the U.S. Department of Public Education required the exams in 2020-21 to help gauge learning loss.  

Under a federal waiver provided last year, schools and the state were not held to the requirement that at least 95% of students participate in the assessments. As a condition of the waiver, though, North Carolina and other states were required to report participation by student subgroups. The participation data are reported for both eligible students who took the tests and those who did not take the tests. 

The student achievement data for the 2020-21 school year are based on all end-of- grade and end-of-course tests. The data reflect the percentage of students who scored at Level 3 and above (“grade-level proficiency”),  at Level 4 and above (“college and career readiness”), and at each academic achievement level. 

While comparisons to 2018-19 are instructive, Camnitz and other state education leaders cautioned against reading too much into the data from school years that were very different. 

“It [2018-19] is included as a way to provide context,” Camnitz said. “Comparison of the two years should only be made with a recognition of multiple anomalies that occurred during the 2020-21 school year and during test administration.”

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End-of-grade reading performance (Source: NCDPI)

She described Wednesday’s report as a “first step” and promised a comprehensive “learning loss” report in March. 

Many education experts predicted that low-income students [4] and those with learning disabilities would be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 learning loss caused by school closures. 

“How much learning students lose during school closures varies significantly by access to remote learning, the quality of remote instruction, home support, and the degree of engagement,” researchers from McKinsey & Company, a public policy and management consulting firm, said last year. 

Low-income, minority children fare worst

Wednesday’s report shows that learning loss was acute among students from economically disadvantaged families. Testing data show that only 28.8% percent of economically disadvantaged students were proficient on exams last school year. In 2018-19, that figure was 44.6%.

But students from wealthier families also suffered.  Testing data from last school year show 55.7% of non-economically disadvantaged students proficient on state exams, down from 71% after the 2018-19 school year.  

Learning loss was also acute among the state’s two largest minority groups, Blacks and Hispanics. Less than one-quarter of Black students were proficient on exams last year, compared to 41% were in 2018-2019. Meanwhile, a third of of Hispanic students were proficient last year, as compared to 48.6% in 2018-19. White students experienced a similar decline. Last year 58.9% passed the exams, compared with 71% in 2018-19.

According to a survey conducted by The Harris Poll of more than 900, U.S., K-12 teachers, 79% believe the pandemic caused their student to lose out on learning and 72% said it set back students’ learning. 

“We are seeing more administrator and staff turnover as a result of the pandemic. For example, superintendent turnover went from 13% last year to 18% in 2021, which will make it more challenging to address learning loss,” said Verlan Stephens, managing partner for Agile Education Marketing, the firm that sponsored the poll. “Once states begin publishing testing results, we will have a better picture of learning loss hot spots.”  

ACT scores, graduation results remain relatively steady

Also released in Wednesday’s data report were performance outcomes on the ACT college readiness exam administered to all 11th graders and the four- and five-year graduation rate for the class of 2021. 

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SBE Chairman Eric Davis

On the ACT, for which the University of North Carolina System sets a composite score of 17 as its minimum admission requirement, the state saw a slight decline in the percentage of students achieving that score, from 55.8% in 2018-19 to 55.2% in 2020-21. Tammy Howard, director of accountability services for NCDPI, noted that the less pronounced difference compared with state exams, can probably be attributed to the more cumulative nature of the ACT, which is also less course specific. 

The state’s four-year graduation rate for the Class of 2021 also declined slightly, to 86.9% percent from 87.6% for the class of 2020.

The Class of 2019 four-year graduation rate was 86.5%. 

SBE Chairman Eric Davis said districts will use testing data to develop instructional plans for the current school year. 

“These results show the resilience of our students and dedication of our teachers and others to persevere despite the many disruptions to learning,” Davis said. “The scores should not be interpreted to indicate deficiencies in student learning or our teachers’ abilities to teach.”