ST. GEORGE — Recently released test scores from the end of the 2020-21 school year show a decline in math and English language arts proficiency for students across the state of Utah, according to data shared by the Utah State Board of Education.
Comparing the results from 2019 (the last year the tests were held) and 2021 RISE tests, overall proficiency in language arts fell about 4 percentage points while math competence decreased by an average 6 percentage points.
The state board provided context for the assessment results by highlighting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the shift to virtual learning – coupled with limited access to technology and traditional learning resources – may have affected students’ performance in standardized tests.
Each district in the state experienced varying levels of decline, and both Iron County and Washington County schools faced learning disruptions and reduced participation that contributed to significantly lower scores.
“We saw a drop almost across the board that was similar to what was experienced statewide,” said Steven Burton, director of elementary education and assessment for Iron County School District. “Our area of biggest concern was probably our fourth grade language arts. We saw a drop, and that’s something we’re working to address this year.”
Only 37% of Iron County fourth graders tested at or above proficiency in language arts in 2021, compared to 53% in 2019. Fourth and fifth grade math proficiency were also substantially lower, falling 10% and 9%, respectively.
In Washington County School District, language arts proficiency among fourth and fifth graders also decreased significantly, though the lowest overall grade/subject was sixth grade math with only 32% of students demonstrating proficiency by RISE standards.
While the RISE results were only recently made public by state and district officials, much of the data was available to school officials and teachers shortly after the school year ended, said Brad Ferguson, director of assessment for Washington County schools.
“Probably the first meeting that occurred right after the school year ended was with sixth grade math teachers,” he said. “We’re trying to do what we can to improve that, so we brainstormed through the data and tried to identify what concepts students were getting and what concepts they didn’t seem to be getting.”
In like manner, Iron County teachers and administrators have been adapting lesson plans and discussing individual interventions to better prepare students for this year’s tests, Burton said.
What is RISE Testing
RISE stands for Readiness, Improvement, Success and Empowerment. Previously known as SAGE, it is a state-required assessment administered to third to eighth grade students to test proficiency in key subjects.
“It’s not a packaged commercial product,” Ferguson said. “The items for the test are created by Utah educators to assess the Utah state core standards. The scores that decide whether a student is proficient or not is also decided by Utah educators – they look at the test results and decide the point (score) that students absolutely have to get in order to be considered proficient in that subject.”
Passing students are represented in the percent proficient reported in the state and district data. State averages across grades and subjects rarely exceed 50% proficiency.
Generally speaking, Iron County and Washington County students have demonstrated greater proficiency than the state average. That marginal distinction remained in the 2021 results, though some grade/subjects did perform slightly worse than the Utah mean.
“The good news is we’re higher than the state average,” said Terry Hutchinson, member of the Washington County board of education. “The bad news is the state average and our average is lower than before COVID hit.”
The official state report will be released by the Utah State Board of Education at its November 4 meeting.
It’s important to note that grade level proficiency can fluctuate even between normal school years, Ferguson said. The questions students are asked and the aggregate capability of a given cohort changes each year, shifting proficiency up or down several percentage points.
However, the statewide decline noted between 2019 and 2021 indicates something affected all students’ performance in RISE testing.
Effects of virtual learning and educational disruption
For education officials at the state and local level, the blame for widespread learning loss can be largely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think one of the most harmful elements that happened wasn’t necessarily during the 2021 school year – it was what happened during the last quarter of 2020,” Ferguson said. “The state said we need to shut down school and everyone went into quarantine. We finished the school year in a virtual mode, suddenly and with very little rundown to do that.”
When school resumed in 2021, in-person instruction was offered throughout the school year in both Washington and Iron County, though the pandemic still affected students and teachers in the form of reduced instructional time and lack of learning supports such as tutoring or afterschool mentoring – not to direct effects such as illness, quarantine and stress.
Even with a return to in-person instruction, school administrators and teachers faced challenges in the form of student attitudes and outlook in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, said Richard Holmes, assistant superintendent of secondary education.
“There is a sense of students not caring,” Holmes said. “I truly think it’s related to a multitude of things, but we can even be specific to COVID. They’ve got masks on, they’re stressed and they’re hearing all kinds of things in the media. So when they go in and take that test, they may be hearing at home, ‘Don’t even worry about it. It doesn’t matter anymore.’”
The data from the RISE tests indicate that overall proficiency for virtual participants was much lower than their in-person peers. In Washington County, virtual learners were an average 15 percentage points lower in overall proficiency compared to their in-person counterparts.
Despite having some of the best participation in RISE testing, only 14% of virtual learning fourth graders demonstrated proficiency in math compared to the district-wide proficiency of 45%.
In addition, participation in RISE testing was significantly lower among virtual learners, Ferguson said. Several cohorts of online learners had less than 50% participation in the testing, compared to a Washington County average in excess of 92%.
“We saw a similar trend that the students that were online did not typically perform as well as those who were in the classroom,” Burton said. “This year we have the vast majority of our students in person, so we’re hopeful that will help address some of those issues as well.”
Interventions and adjustments are still ongoing, and the results of teachers’ efforts to improve instruction will be judged in part by the outcome of next year’s RISE results.
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