‘Sobering, but not surprising’: Report details the pandemic’s toll on Philly students’ test scores

Reading and math scores for some students dipped as schools shuttered during the public health crisis

By: - October 25, 2022 11:43 am

By Chanel Hill

PHILADELPHIA — A new report by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) shows that Philadelphia students’ scores have declined or went unchanged in reading and math during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the report, Philadelphia’s fourth-grade average math score of 209 was eight points lower than in 2019 and the eighth-grade average of 252 was four points below 2019.

The reading score of 195 for fourth- grade was down two points this year and the eighth-grade score of 242 was down one point compared to 2019.

Philadelphia missed the large-city average by 18 points in fourth-grade math, 14 points in fourth-grade reading, 14 points in eighth-grade math and 13 points in eighth-grade reading.

The report also showed that the majority of public school districts in large cities continue to outperform Philadelphia schools across all four areas.

Nearly 36 percent of district students meet reading standards and 22 percent meet the standards in math, according to state assessments. The district has a goal to improve the percentage of third- to eighth-grade students who meet state benchmarks in English from 36 percent to 65 percent and in math from 22 percent to 52 percent by 2026.

The school district, which has 114,000 students in 216 schools, has been a voluntary participant in the Trial Urban District Assessment for reading and math since 2009.

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“Holding steady in three of four areas given the many challenges that all school districts have experienced these past three years is encouraging news that we intend to build on going forward,” city schools Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr., said in statement.

“But we have a long way to go to ensure all students are succeeding academically,” he added. “That’s why, outside of student safety, improving academic outcomes for all of our students will be our highest priority as we develop our new five-year strategic plan.”

Tonya Wolford, the School District of Philadelphia’s chief of evaluation, research and accountability, said the data from NAEP and other assessments helps the district assess students’ academic performance.

“The importance of being able to compare our School District’s performance to others across the nation cannot be overstated,” Wolford said. “NAEP data along with other achievement data from state and district assessments provides a broad lens for us to view how our students are performing and what areas we need to focus on to improve academic outcomes.

Deemed the “nation’s report card,” NAEP is administered every two years to fourth- and eighth-graders by the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education.

The data includes national, state and select district level scores for fourth and eighth grade in math and reading and gives insight to students’ learning experiences.

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This year’s test was the first administered since the pandemic and assessed reading and math skills of fourth- and eighth-graders at 5,190 public schools in 26 districts across the country.

Statewide, Pennsylvania fourth-graders math scores dropped by six points and fell by four points in reading. The state’s eighth grade average math scores dropped by 11 points and fell by five points in reading.

Nationally, the average math score of 236 for the fourth grade was five points lower than 2019 and eight points below the 2019 mark of 274 for the eight grade. The reading score of 2017 for the fourth grade was down three points this year — the same decline as the eighth grade score of 260 compared to 2019.

The math exams reflected the performance of 116,200 fourth graders in 5,780 schools and 111,000 eighth-graders in 5,190 schools. The reading tests were given to 108,200 fourth-graders in 5,780 schools and 111,300 eighth-graders in 5,190 schools.

The decline is only partly attributed to the pandemic when schools were shuttered and later turned to a mix of online and in person classes in some cities.

“This year’s NAEP results are sobering, but not surprising,” Denise Forte, interim CEO of The Education Trust, said. “Approximately 175,000 students lost one or both parents or a grandparent caregiver during the pandemic.

“Many students, especially Black and Latino students, English learners and students from low-income backgrounds — disproportionately experienced significant disruptions to their learning due to food and housing insecurity, unreliable access to high-speed internet and lack of computers and other devices, reduced access to student supports and education services, limited time to build strong relationships with their teachers, as well as significant reductions to in-person classroom time,” she added.

“Unless we take serious action to target resources that accelerate learning, the effects of the pandemic will be long lasting for students and will affect their ability to compete in the future economy,” Forte said.

Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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