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Amid the pandemic, Missouri standardized test scores declined across grades, subjects

Preliminary results from Missouri statewide assessment tests administered last spring amid the pandemic show scores declined across nearly all grade levels and subjects tested, with the greatest drop in mathematics.

The 2020-21 school year results, which were released Tuesday by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, show that fewer than half of Missouri students passed with proficient and advanced scores across all subjects.

The tests show only 45 percent of students are proficient or advanced in English, 35 percent in math and 37 percent in science. Results from social studies exams will be available in the coming weeks.

Compared with results from the 2018-19 school year, that represents a drop of four points in English, seven points in math and five points in science — though state education officials stress that the unprecedented circumstances surrounding last spring’s tests make blanket comparisons to previous years a misapplication of the data.

The early results mirror what nationwide estimates have indicated: That students are behind where they would normally be, with wider disparities in math, among younger students, minority students and those in high-poverty schools.

Early results also indicated that proficiency rates were higher for Missouri students in onsite and hybrid instruction than those in distanced or virtual.

MAP Statewide Performance Rates
 Statewide performance rates for each subject among grade-level and end-of-course assessments administered during the 2020-21 school year. (Screenshot of Department of Elementary and Secondary Education infographic)

The results are the first statewide glimpse at students’ performance since 2019, as the Missouri Assessment Program, or MAP, tests were suspended in 2020 and performance reports were not issued for the 2019-20 school year.

Margie Vandeven, the commissioner of education, told reporters Monday that the department hopes to use the results as a flashlight to illuminate issues, rather than a hammer to crack down on them.

“Our students are more than test scores,” Vandeven said.

Last December, Missouri’s State Board of Education voted to require state assessments be administered but not factor their results into either state or federal accountability systems.

DESE also received approval from the U.S. Department of Education to waive federal reporting and accountability requirements.

With teachers and students out for weeks at a time due to quarantines, adjusting to hybrid and virtual learning and experiencing greater levels of stress and fatigue navigating the school year amid the pandemic, DESE officials stressed that the results should not be used to make “high stakes” decisions like teacher evaluations.

“Blanket comparisons to previous years’ assessment data that ignores this long list of variables would be a serious misuse of the data,” Vandeven said, “and absolutely not what we’re working to do.”

The largest decrease in any subject was a 9.8 percent drop in the percentage of students passing Algebra 1. 

Similarly, the percentage of third graders passing math dropped roughly nine points from 2019 to 37 percent. For fourth graders that score dropped about seven points to 40 percent, and for fifth graders that score dropped seven points to 33 percent, according to data presented to the State Board of Education.

Meanwhile, the smallest decreases were in English assessments for fourth and eighth grade, which stayed the same and dropped one percentage point respectively, and math for eighth grade students, which resulted in a two percentage point decrease.

Proficiency rates in the optional English 1 end-of-course assessment were slightly higher at 62 percent compared to 2019 scores, and the percent of students passing physical science end-of-course exams remained steady at 37 percent.

When broken down by ethnicity, students that identified as Asian or Pacific Islander, Black or Multiracial experienced the largest dips in proficient and advanced scores from 2019, with drops of six percentage points each. Hispanic students saw a five percentage point drop, and white and American Indian or Alaska Native students each saw a four percentage point drop — lower than the average of a five percentage point decline for all students.

Overall, students that identified as Asian or Pacific Islander had the highest proficiency rate at 56 percent. Black students had the lowest at 15 percent.

Vandeven said parents and families should welcome the test results as another data point. Within the next few weeks, students should be receiving their individual reports that can help indicate where they may need additional support, like one-on-one tutoring, Vandeven said. 

District and school results will be released later this fall.

“We are all in the same ocean, but not in the same boat,” Vandeven said. “Meaning, of course, that a global pandemic impacts each of us, but in different ways.”

The department said it will continue to study the results to help identify trends in learning across modes and demographics and aims to allocate federal relief funds toward resources like targeting the digital divide and evidence-based professional learning for teachers.

“We don’t just want to meet where we were before the pandemic, we want to exceed it as a state,” Lisa Sireno, DESE’s standards and assessment administrator, told the State Board of Education Tuesday.

Studying modes of instruction

While participation was lower — with an average of about 4,300 fewer students tested in each grade level — Sireno said Monday that overall participation was still high, bolstering the results’ validity.

The participation rate for English assessments was at 91.4 percent, mathematics was at 90.5 percent and science was at 92.5 percent.

Just over half of students, 51 percent, were in onsite instruction; 31 percent in a hybrid model; 10 percent in virtual instruction; and 8 percent in a distanced method where some instruction is given online.

It was the first time the department captured data on learning modes at a student level, Sireno said, stressing it was too early to tell if there’s a cause-and-effect relationship.

Overall, proficiency rates were higher for students in onsite and hybrid instruction than those in distanced or virtual.

For example, in math 77.2 percent of students in virtual instruction performed at basic or below basic levels and 82.2 percent of students in distanced instruction also were at basic or below basic levels.

That compares to 60.7 percent of students at those same levels in onsite instruction and 63.3 percent in hybrid instruction.

Overall, 81 percent of students had access to a device while 78 percent had internet access, and similarly passing rates tended to be higher for those with access to internet or a device.

Vandeven said the department plans to take that data on the primary mode of instruction — which was collected three times throughout the last school year — and work with University of Missouri researchers to assess differences in modes of instruction and performance.

Melissa Randol, the executive director of the Missouri School Boards’ Association, said in a statement after the results’ release that they reinforced what was already known: that teaching in person makes a difference.

“And when you can’t teach in person, access to the internet and adequate bandwidth make a difference,” Randol said. “Our teachers and students did a fantastic job under the circumstances during this pandemic – we can’t lose sight of that.”

Last year, a survey of Missouri State Teachers Association members found that most wanted this year’s assessments suspended altogether. Bruce Moe, the organization’s executive director, echoed Randol’s comments in a statement Tuesday on the importance of in-person learning and lauded educators as “heroes in their communities across the state.”

Doug Hayter, the executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, said district leaders will be using Tuesday’s results as a snapshot that can help guide where to target federal aid dollars, like to boost math scores.

“We went through a very difficult time,” Hayter said. “Now, how do we assess, move forward, utilize resources and then move children back to the levels where they need to be for those that need that additional assistance.”

This year, schools must prioritize in-person learning after the State Board of Education rescinded a rule allowing for long-term mass remote learning. In the first weeks of school, thousands of students and staff have been quarantined.

Vandeven said it was too early to assess if statewide tests would also be exempt from accountability measures this upcoming school year, but emphasized the importance of in-person learning and mitigation measures that can help safely facilitate it.

However, when asked if the department plans to implement more uniform requirements, like wearing masks, to help ensure students are in class statewide, Vandeven said she feels the current statewide guidance provides a uniform approach.

“We’ve started this pandemic, and we’re continuing through this pandemic, understanding that local context matters and that Missouri is a local control state,” Vandeven said.

This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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