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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

How did the pandemic impact kids’ test scores in Washington? Early numbers don’t look good

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Families will need to wait a bit longer to find out how much learning has been lost at their child’s school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the numbers, when they finally come out, will probably be disappointing.

Statewide numbers released recently indicate sharp learning losses since the spring of 2019, the last time tests were administered until now.

Overall, only 30% of public school students from grades four through 11 met state standards in mathematics, a drop from 47% in 2019.

The falloff was almost as dramatic in English, with 47% meeting the standard; 2½ years earlier, 60% met it.

District- and school-level results, along with age-group breakdowns of the Smarter Balanced Assessment, were expected to be released this week by the Office of the State Superintendent.

However, OSPI reversed course this week. Citing the time needed for “data suppression,” that is to protect the privacy of smaller student groups with each district, it now expects to release numbers sometime in mid-February.

“What I heard is that we’re going to post this as soon as we can,” said Katy Payne, the director of communications at OSPI.

In addition to overall numbers, OSPI broke down the percentages for several subgroups in both English and math.

The decline in English scores was fairly consistent among all groups. For example, in 2019, 60% of white students met the achievement standard. That fell to 47% last fall.

Among other groups tracked by OSPI, pass rates by Asian students dropped from 78% to 67%, Hispanics from 42% to 31%, Blacks from 41% to 31% and Native Americans from 35% to 23%.

The dropoff was more severe in the math assessment, with some groups’ pass rate cut in half. Those included Hispanics (a 31% pass rate falling to 15%), Blacks (from 27% to 13%) and Native Americans (from 25% to 10%).

Among whites, 30% met math standards; that’s down from 55% in 2019. Asians also lost ground, from 74% meeting math standards to 58% last fall.

Students from low-income families saw their already-low rates fall even lower; from 31% meeting standards in math three years ago to 15% last year.

Few experts are surprised.

“I think that with the pandemic and having to change the model of education for the spring of 2020, it exacerbated and highlighted some real inequities that existed,” said Michael Dunn, superintendent of Northeast Washington Educational Service District 101.

Among those inequities is unequal internet access.

Dunn, who spends much of his time visiting rural districts, said the move to remote learning in the spring of 2020 “probably pinpointed how important it is for them to have consistent and affordable access to high-speed internet and also have the support they need,” Dunn said.

The problem persists. Due to staffing problems caused by high COVID-19 infection rates, the Reardan-Edwall School District is temporarily returning to remote learning.

Unfortunately, Dunn said, about 50% of students in the rural district do not have internet access.

“I think our districts did a yeoman’s job of getting devices into kids’ hands,” Dunn said. But internet access is the other technology piece of remote learning.

Data will be an important tool in helping districts track student progress, said David Knight, an education professor at the University of Washington.

“I would say that it’s not good news – but not entirely surprising. We know that poverty is the biggest impediment to success in the classroom,” Knight told the Seattle Times this week.

“Low-income households were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. I think the important thing now is that we not let up in our pursuit to close gaps,” Knight said.

It’s still unclear whether the dropoff was more severe for districts that began the 2020-21 school year in remote learning only.

During an address on Jan. 7, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal said that a preliminary look didn’t show significant differences.

However, a working paper released in November by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that learning loss was far worse in districts that kept classes fully remote, and that declines in reading scores were greater in districts serving predominantly poor and non-white students.

“That’s going to be interesting to see,” Dunn said.

In a typical year, students take the state assessments near the end of the school year.

To prioritize in-person learning in the spring of 2021, the spring assessment for that year was pushed back to the fall.

“The fall 2021 test was a condensed version of the typical test, and it was given in a different year than students learned the content,” Payne said.

Because the state testing was pushed off from spring 2021 and modified to be given in fall 2021, it was decided that students should be tested on “where they would have been” in spring 2021.

So, a fourth grader in autumn of 2021 took the third grade assessment that they would have taken in Spring 2021 when they were a third grade student.

This spring, all grade levels will be back to taking their “usual” grade-level SBA assessments.