New state data is shedding light on just how far back the COVID-19 pandemic has set Indiana students — and the significant amount of time it will take to get them back on track.
The results of the spring ILEARN exam show fewer than one-third of elementary and middle school students are on track to graduate high school ready for college or career, according to data released Wednesday by the Indiana Department of Education. Just 28% of students tested passed both the math and English portions of the test — a marked decline from previous years.
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This past spring was just the second administration of the state’s new standardized test. Last year’s exams were canceled after the pandemic closed schools statewide. There were concerns about students’ readiness after the 2019 ILEARN results were released, but state officials said scores would rebound after students and educators recalibrated to the new test.
Then the pandemic hit. State officials say it’s not fair to compare this year’s scores to the past.
“This data cannot be an indictment on anyone, on anything, on any school,” said Secretary of Education Katie Jenner as she presented the results to the State Board of Education Wednesday. “The reality is, all of us had a global pandemic.”
Early indications from a research study of state data shows wide-ranging and significant academic impacts that officials are predicting will take, in many cases, more than a single school year to recover.
More ILEARN 2021:
Drops were expected
While the results are cause for concern, particularly as they relate to Hoosier students most at-risk of getting left behind, they’re not necessarily surprising.
Last month, state officials warned that schools would see “significant declines” in their scores, compared to the last administration of the ILEARN exam in the spring of 2019.
In 2019, 37.1% of students passed both the English and math portions of the exam while 47.9% and 47.8% passed the individual portions, respectively. This year, those figures dropped to 28.6% passing both, 40.5% passing English and just 36.9% passing math.
The declines in performance are not unexpected after the year schools and students have had — plagued by disruption, quarantines and a revolving door of in-person and online learning. Interim tests given throughout the year suggested the state should expect to see drops. The data from ILEARN, given to students in grades 3-8 and ISTEP, given to this year’s high school juniors, confirmed those drops.
White, wealthy and suburban schools stayed on top
While scores may have been impacted more or less across the board, the schools and students that have traditionally performed the best on statewide standardized tests continued to do so.
One regular criticism of standardized testing is that it is better at predicting the demographic makeup of a school than it is at measuring school performance or student achievement. Still, state officials said it is one data point they use to see where students on in their learning.
Many of the schools that recorded the highest scores statewide were private. Many of the highest-performing public schools were located in suburban Indianapolis, where the student bodies are often whiter and wealthier than the state average.
Meanwhile, just 10% of all Indianapolis Public Schools students passed both portions of the exam. The results show that the district continues to struggle meeting the needs of all students. While several of its most sought-after schools posted scores above the overall statewide results, more than two dozen schools had fewer than 5% of students pass both portions of the test.
Other Marion County districts also posted scores below the state average. In Warren Township, just 7.9% of students passed both exams. Just Perry Township, Franklin Township and Speedway schools did better than the state overall.
State officials are still digging into testing and other data points to determine the full extent of the pandemic on learning but have already found that English language learners were significantly impacted.
While all races and ethnicities experienced a significant impact in their math performance, the impact on English scores was felt more deeply by Asian, Black and Latino students, according to the education department’s analysis of the data. On the ISTEP exam, taken by high school juniors, 71% of white students passed the English portion and 43% passed math, 44% of Black students passed the English exam and just 14% passed math.
The gap was also striking in the elementary and middle school grades, as well. On the ILEARN exam, 47% of white students passed English and 44% passed math. But just 27% of Latino students and 17% of Black students were proficient on the English test and 22% and 12% on math, respectively.
Students living in poverty also saw significant, negative impacts from the pandemic on both their English and math scores. Again, while the impact on math was significant at every level, students whose families do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals did not see the same degree of decline in English.
While the state doesn’t have this same level of data for other subjects, officials said they expect the impact to extend into other content areas, too.
Participation better than expected
Initially, there were concerns from schools about how many students would participate in the exams — particularly those students still learning virtually. We still don’t know how many of those students participated but we do know that statewide, roughly 97% of all students took the exams.
On the ISTEP exam, given to high school juniors two months earlier than the ILEARN assessments that started in April, participation rates were still better than expected. On the math exam, 98% of students took the test and 95% took the English portion. While the test is normally given to sophomores, the class of 2022 couldn’t take it on schedule after the pandemic closed schools last spring so they had to make it up. This was the last year the ISTEP exam will be given.
Next year, the state is moving to a college entrance exam for its high school assessment.
The greatest impact on math
While English scores saw mild dips, the greatest impact of the pandemic has occurred in math where scores have dropped precipitously.
Math scores held to a notable downward trend starting with a 49% pass rate at the third-grade level and steadily declining to just 28% in the eighth grade.
Schools have noticed similar trends in other assessments and have speculated that math instruction may not translate as well virtually.
A research study commissioned by the education department found significant impacts – defined as those that will take more than a single school year to make up – across the board in math.
Recovery will take years
According to state officials, it will take “unprecedented” rates of learning to get students back to where they would be under normal learning conditions, which is still not to say proficient in many cases.
Charity Flores, the state’s chief academic officer said it may take longer than the upcoming school year even to get students back to where they were before the pandemic. Flores said the multi-year effort could stretch to three or even five years for some students.
“It will need to be a comprehensive, multi-year response,” she said. “The gas pedal will need to be down for a while.”
In order to start meeting these challenges, the state is encouraging schools to look for innovative ways to extend learning time and to dedicate uninterrupted blocks of time to English and math.
The upcoming school year is likely to be a balancing act as teachers work to teach grade-level material while also ensuring students have the foundation from the previous year needed to understand it and deliver remediation when they don’t.