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‘Disappointing’ but not unexpected: low state test scores reflect challenges of interrupted learning

081121 Wilder Elementary_3 STOCK
Students at Wilder Elementary return to in-person education on the first day of school in Jefferson County.

Test results and school ratings released by the Kentucky Department of Education Tuesday show overall low student performance on standardized tests in the spring of 2022. The scores —the most reliable since the pandemic began — confirm what many education experts suspected: The COVID-19 pandemic put students behind in some important academic skills. 

“It’s disappointing, but it’s also expected,” Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass said during a press conference.

Statewide, less than half of Kentucky elementary school students tested at “proficient” or above in math, reading and social studies. Less than a third tested proficient or above in writing and science. “Proficient” is the state’s benchmark score indicating the student has a good grasp of skills and content.  

Middle school students showed similarly low scores. 

High schoolers’ average ACT score of 18.3 is up slightly from last year, but is still lower than it was in the 2018-2019 school year — the last year before the pandemic. The national average ACT score is a 19.8, out of a total possible 36 points. 

Staggering gaps in scores between marginalized student groups and their more-advantaged peers remain. Proficiency rates for Black and low-income students trailed rates for white and wealthier groups by around 25 percentage points.

Glass said he expects many people will be worried by the results. But he urged policymakers to use the data calmly and “responsibly.”

“Everybody needs to take a breath and get back to work,” Glass said. “We knew these gaps existed before. We know the distance we need to cover, and it’s most important now to just start leaning into the work of supporting and educating our students.”

Glass said he believed students can recover, given enough time and resources. The federal government has already poured $2 billion into Kentucky schools alone to try to catch students up.

The data is the first reliable statewide look at student performance since the pandemic began, but Glass and others cautioned against comparing the scores to pre-pandemic years. Since the 2018-2019 school year, the state has changed academic standards, the test format, the grading scale and the school rating system. 

However, Glass said “we probably would see a decline in scores,” had the old testing system remained in place. “That would be consistent with what we’ve seen in national data.”

In September, the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed math and reading scores decline to the lowest point in two decades. 

This year marks the first time since the pandemic that public schools received new state ratings. These are overall ratings based on a schools’ test scores, graduation rates, student surveys and other college and career readiness indicators. The federal government requires states to grade each school annually, but put the requirement on hold due to learning and testing disruptions. They’re meant to give families, and policymakers a shorthand for determining how well each school is performing.

This year’s ratings are on a new color-coded system. Instead of the five-star rating system schools had before the pandemic, schools will be rated as “very low” (red), “low” (orange), “medium” (yellow), “high” (green) or “very high” (blue).

Schools fell along a bell-shaped curve, with the majority of Kentucky schools scoring orange, yellow or green.

Schools with an overall rating in the bottom 5% are flagged for “comprehensive school improvement” (CSI). This is a federally-mandated designation that triggers an audit and intervention. Before 2020, that intervention could include a state-mandated ousting of the principal at the CSI school. But state lawmakers revised the law to leave leadership decisions to the district.

The state marked 51 schools as CSI; 34 of them are in Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest school district. 

Overall proficiency rates in JCPS trailed the state in each subject. For example, while 38% of elementary students statewide tested proficient or higher in math, only 27% of JCPS students met the same benchmark. 

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said it also serves some of the most disadvantaged students in the state. Two-thirds of JCPS students are low-income.

“You want to improve education outcomes? Reduce childhood poverty,” Pollio said during a press conference.

He pointed to research showing a tight correlation between low test scores and poverty, and said he hesitates to highlight schools’ ratings.

“When we go into some of our high-poverty schools that might be considered red or orange…I’m seeing some of the greatest work that our educators can be doing to meet the needs of our kids,” he said. 

JCPS teacher Maddie Shepard said she considers the scores and ratings a “narrow” look at the quality of a school.  

“They just can't capture all of the things that educators value — things like innovation, creativity, collaboration,” she told WFPL News. “And we're doing ourselves a disservice by putting these scores up on the pedestal that we do.”

Many critics of standardized testing also argue they are racially biased to favor white and middle-class students, due to the wording of questions and implicit bias of those grading written portions of the test.

The majority of students in JCPS are students of color.

Pollio said to improve outcomes, the district will focus on offering extended learning after school, during the summer, and on weekends. He also believes the district’s new student assignment plan will bring students more sense of belonging, and provide more equitable distribution of resources.

Pollio did highlight one bright spot for JCPS: a record high four-year graduation rate of 84.7%. 

You can find your school’s rating and test score for the 2022 school year at this link: https://www.kyschoolreportcard.com.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.