Student Achievement

Low Test Scores Have Educators Worried, Survey Shows

By Sarah Schwartz — November 17, 2021 5 min read
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A majority of educators say their schools’ or districts’ standardized test results from last spring are lower than they were pre-pandemic—and that they find the numbers concerning.

Those are the findings from a recent nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of teachers, principals, and district administrators. The survey was administered in late October and early November, with 977 respondents.

Of survey-takers who had received their schools’ spring state test results, 70 percent said that scores were down across the board from where they were before COVID, or were down in some areas and held steady in others.

In math, 80 percent of respondents said elementary scores were concerning and 81 percent said the same of secondary scores. Numbers were similar in English/language arts, with 76 percent of educators concerned by elementary scores and 74 percent for secondary scores.

About a quarter of respondents said they hadn’t received state test results from last spring (the survey sample also included teachers who taught in untested subjects).

These results add to the growing stream of data demonstrating that students’ academic progress stalled over the 2020-21 school year, amid the pandemic’s interruptions to instruction. Just earlier this month, for example, curriculum and assessment provider Curriculum Associates released results from its reading and math diagnostic tests this fall, showing that fewer students in grades 1 through 8 are on grade level in reading and math than in years past.

But state standardized test results, specifically, come with several caveats, assessment experts have said. As Education Week’s Catherine Gewertz reported last month, disruptions to testing-as-usual during the 2020-21 school year could affect the validity of the scores.

Some states allowed students to test remotely, making it difficult to compare their results to those of students who tested in person. And many states reported lower-than-average participation rates, meaning that the results might not reflect the student population.

Even in districts where most students tested in person, some educators say that the results have limited usefulness this year.

In the past, Andrew McDaniel might have compared results at his school to others in the state, to see if he could learn from similar schools that had better scores in certain areas. But this year there are too many variables at play—how much time kids spent in buildings, or how much support they had from families at home—to glean much useful information from that kind of comparison, said McDaniel, the principal of Southwood Junior/Senior High School in Wabash, Ind.

“It’s important, but it’s not the only data point that we look at,” he said of state test scores.

Scores aren’t ‘fine-grained enough to guide instruction’

State standardized test scores only capture one moment in time, a point that critics of using them for accountability purposes have long emphasized. But this fact makes scores especially hard to interpret during the pandemic, as students’ learning environments keep shifting, McDaniel said.

For example, at Southwood Junior/Senior High School, some students were remote during the 2020-21 school year while others attended school in person. Many of those who were in person still had to leave the building for weeks at a time due to quarantining requirements. Lots of students struggled with online learning, McDaniel said.

“Our numbers for failing grades were just off the charts.” And that was reflected in the school’s state test scores, which were lower than in years’ past.

This year, though, the district isn’t offering a remote option, so all students are in the building. The district has also changed the quarantining policy, so that parents can choose to keep sending children to school if they’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive, as long as the student isn’t showing symptoms. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all unvaccinated students who have been exposed should quarantine, though some schools have started to remove these requirements or put other policies in place during the 2021-22 school year.)

Students are spending a lot more time in the building this year than they did last year, and they’re already making academic progress, McDaniel said. The 2020-21 test scores, while low, aren’t his biggest concern in this new landscape. Instead, it’s behavior and social-emotional skills, as students re-learn the routines of school.

Other educators say that their students’ scores from last year reflect persisting academic needs.

Mike Huler, the secondary mathematics curriculum specialist in Westerville City Schools in Ohio, said that scores were “considerably worse in the last testing cycle” than in years’ past. He attributes the dips to a few factors. Instructional mode in the district shifted throughout the year, between hybrid and in-person learning, causing disruptions. And the spring shutdowns in 2020 pushed teachers to play catch-up with the previous year’s content at the start of the 2020-21 school year, rather than moving on to grade-level work.

“It’s very difficult to convince teachers to stay on grade-level standards and scaffold in when needed, as opposed to, ‘We didn’t cover that at the end of last year and we need to do that first,’” he said. “So there was much more backfilling than I would have liked before we even knew what [students] needed.”

Still, he doesn’t think that state assessment from last spring can provide much of a roadmap for how to support students now. “The information that we get from the state isn’t really fine-grained enough to guide instruction,” Huler said.

Instead, he’s supporting teachers in using a combination of quantitative and qualitative data at the classroom and school levels.

Math teachers are using a supplemental online learning program to diagnose and fill gaps in grade-level skills. The district has also started doing “learning rounds,” sending groups of teachers and school- and district-level administrators out to schools to observe what practices teachers are using.

These groups are looking for the kinds of practices that will set students up for success in high school, like math conversation, persistence through complex problems, and working on tasks that require reasoning and could have more than one solution.

“I’m more concerned with preparing kids for the long run,” Huler said.

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