WICHITA, Kansas — It turns out a year of shutdowns and quarantines generated lousy test scores for schoolchildren across Kansas.
More than 30% of students fell behind their grade level in math and language arts in the 2020-21 school year.
That marked a sharp decline that lines up with the COVID-19 shutdown of in-person school in the spring of 2020 and launched the following school year into an ad hoc combination of online teaching and stop-and-start opening of school buildings.
Before the pandemic, 28% of students were below grade level in math. After the pandemic, that number shot to about 34%. In language arts, the falling-behind number went from 27% to just over 30%.
The picture for high-schoolers is more grim: Forty-seven percent scored below grade level in math, up from 41% two years ago. About 35% scored below grade level in English language arts.
The scores offer one metric in understanding the potential learning loss caused by the pandemic.
Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson said comparisons with previous years are complicated. Tests weren’t administered in 2020 because of school closures, and not all students took them this past spring.
But he said Kansas isn’t alone.
“Every data point we have is down,” Watson said, “and so is everyone else’s across the country.”
Results from the state tests are searchable by district and individual schools on the Kansas Department of Education website, at http://ksreportcard.ksde.org/.
Statewide, results from the 2021 test scores showed declines in most areas. Only 28% of Kansas students were considered on track for college or career in math, and about 35% in language arts — a drop of four percentage points in math and one point in English since 2019.
Wichita, that state’s largest school district, showed dramatic declines, with 58% of students scoring at the lowest level in math — up from 46% in 2019. About 48% of Wichita students scored below grade level in English language arts — up from 44% in 2019.
Among Wichita high school students, more than 68% scored below grade level in math, up from about 60% in 2019.
Other key findings from the 2021 state test results:
- Students tend to fall further behind their respective grade levels the older they get. About 77% of third-graders met or exceeded grade-level expectations in math. By eighth grade, that number is only 65%. Among high-schoolers, only 53% met grade-level standards.
- Across grade levels, there remains a significant achievement gap between white students and students of color. Nearly 61% of Black students and 50% of Hispanic students scored below grade level in math, compared with 27% of white students and 20% of Asian students.
- Low-income students continue to score lower in all areas than their higher-income peers. Consequently, districts with high numbers of students living in poverty, such as Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, did not perform as well on state tests as higher-income suburban districts.
Watson, the education commissioner, said test scores aren’t the only metric that got worse during the pandemic.
The rate of chronic absenteeism — students who miss more than 15 days of school a year — rose from 14% to 17.5% statewide since 2019. Truancy cases climbed from 767 to more than 2,200 over the same period.
“The last 18 months have been the hardest on our state — and schools are a microcosm of that — in the history of our public and private schools,” Watson said.
Dave Trabert, chief executive officer of the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, said declines raise questions about the value of a high school diploma.
“We know that a lot of kids getting a diploma are below grade level in math and English language arts,” Trabert told members of the Kansas Board of Education at a meeting this month. “I’ve had that conversation in front of school superintendents, who have not denied it.”
In coming years, Kansas districts will get about $1.4 billion in federal aid to address impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, including learning loss.
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.