Scores from national school test reveal pandemic’s effect

Celeste Martin (left) and Monserrath Guerrero look to their teacher from behind plastic partitions during their language arts class at Marietta Middle School on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 5, 2020. Even though there are only five students in the room during class, they all wear masks and sit behind plastic partitions. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Celeste Martin (left) and Monserrath Guerrero look to their teacher from behind plastic partitions during their language arts class at Marietta Middle School on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 5, 2020. Even though there are only five students in the room during class, they all wear masks and sit behind plastic partitions. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Teachers and students will have extra homework after the pandemic ends, as new findings show growth in math scores has fallen since last school year.

Most Georgia students haven’t taken a state-standardized test since 2019, and most will not take another until the spring, if then.

Without those scores on the Milestones tests, it’s unclear how big a toll COVID-19 has had on learning. However, new national scores from an alternative test used by more than 300 Georgia schools show reading more or less intact but math suffering, with the worst performance at the elementary school level.

Math is taught in a sequential way, with concepts building upon concepts, so a weak foundation could undermine learning for years to come, said Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA, the educational organization behind the MAP Growth assessments. He thinks math scores suffered because parents are less skilled at teaching it than they are at reading to their children.

His organization compared results on tests in grades three through eight this fall against scores before the pandemic closed schools last spring, and the results left Minnich with an urgent question for communities after the pandemic:

“Once we get back, how are we going to intervene to make sure these things don’t become lifelong gaps for kids?”

Although the results are not specific to Georgia, the 4.4 million test-takers sampled nationwide included about 170,000 from this state, so NWEA is confident that the results apply here too.

Average gains on scores in math were between 5 and 10 percentile points lower for students this year compared with last year while reading was basically unchanged.

Several Georgia school districts that use the MAP tests observed similar results in their own scores except they also noticed something that NWEA didn’t report. The organization dismissed the scores in kindergarten through second grade, deeming them too unreliable given the number of children who took the tests at home.

But kids that young were back in school in time for the tests this fall in some Georgia districts, including in Marietta.

“We looked at our K-2 data and that was the most alarming for us,” said Belinda Walters-Brazile, Marietta’s deputy superintendent. “The younger the student, the more impact it’s had on their regression.” On the bright side, she said, the Marietta math scores didn’t dip as much as the national average.

Kenny Garland, the superintendent in Jasper County southeast of Atlanta, said three-quarters of his first grade students were reading above grade level before the pandemic hit, but by this fall, when they rose to second grade and took more tests, only a third were above grade level. The gaps narrowed in the higher grades, but he saw similar gaps in math among the youngest test-takers. It’s a “huge” setback because that age is foundational, he said. “That is a very crucial year.”

The Georgia Department of Education said the MAP results were not surprising but were cause for concern. The agency has given districts free “formative” tests they can use to track students and has provided remote learning plans that emphasize key ideas and concepts for each grade level, a spokeswoman said.

NWEA offered a cautionary note with its findings: The losses in grades three through eight may actually be worse because fewer students took the MAP tests this fall, and those who skipped them tended to be from underperforming groups, including students of color, English learners, students with disabilities and students from low-income households.

Local education advocate Ed Chang said students will need more time with a teacher, whether that means longer school days or more of them. That will cost money.

State and federal government, corporations, nonprofits and donors need to know where the problems are and what the recovery plans will be, said Chang, who founded and operated an Atlanta charter school before founding redefinED Atlanta.

“I think transparency and accountability are two huge things,” he said.

School administrators, meanwhile, said they are already intervening. They attribute much of the loss to last spring and to the hasty retreat online. In many cases, they’ve managed to bring students back in person this school year, or at least to improve the digital alternative. They say in-person teaching is essential for the youngest children, and they are anxiously awaiting the results from the next round of MAP tests this winter to see whether the interventions this semester have made a difference.

Even so, April Howard, the superintendent in Jackson County near Athens, said the ongoing disruptions this fall, with multiple students missing weeks of school due to quarantines, have affected students.

“I think anyone would be fooling themselves to think that they could fix this in a short time frame,” she said. “I think we’re going to have some work to do.”

In Other News