Test scores dip as local educators confront unfinished learning

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Educators, district officials and education advocates are actively searching for ways to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on kids in school—including addressing a gap in learning many attribute to online learning.

Chandler USD saw a 1% decrease in overall English language arts state standardized test scores in spring 2021 compared to 2019—the last time the standardized test was administered. The district also saw a 9% dip in proficiency levels in math from 2019, according to data from the district.

Jennifer Fletcher, executive director of accountability, assessment and research for CUSD, said the district is on par with the rest of the school districts across the Valley—many of which saw similar drops in proficiency in English and math across all student groups.

"Chandler always has and should continue to outperform the state,” Fletcher said. “The other piece here is that we outperformed all the districts similar to us in ELA, and in terms of math we are in the top three of districts of similar size and student demographic. We are not talking about a massive spread in the proficiency levels.”

Still, a gap exists for many students, and Arizona schools have spent millions of federal dollars to combat unfinished learning through summer school, and before- and after-school tutoring. Chandler is expected to get another $30 million in funding, and 20% of that is dedicated to mitigating unfinished learning.

“Anecdotally, I think you hear about this idea of learning loss and how horrendous and bad it was,” Fletcher said. “But for us as a district, and I’m not trying to undermine anything, it wasn’t as horrendous as people are trying to claim it to be. Schools saw far worse declines than we saw. But this helps us to see what we did well and see what we can improve.”

Fletcher attributes part of the district’s smaller test score decline from 2019-21 to the district only using virtual learning for the end of the 2019-20 school year and the first quarter of 2020-21. Also, the district did not see a large drop in the number of students who tested, she said—about 3,000 fewer students took the test compared to the previous year.

“If you look statewide, Phoenix Union [High School District] never went back to in-person instruction, and the number of students they tested decreased by thousands—one-sixth of their students tested,” Fletcher said. “You had to come in person for the tests, and some parents were hesitant to send their kids to school for testing. For this reason, you can’t really put all your eggs in the AzMerit basket. Formative assessments are a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole puzzle.”

COVID-19 effects on students

Katie Nash, a teacher at Chandler High School and president of the Chandler Education Association, said she is seeing and hearing about behavioral changes in students that may be concerning results of the ongoing stress of the pandemic.

“I think that we can’t necessarily measure all the changes we have seen in our kids,” Nash said. “We are seeing a rise of issues with behavior. Students are more unprepared to be in a classroom for six or seven hours a day. In the [younger grades], you have a bunch of kiddos who can’t regulate their emotions. In junior high, we are seeing discipline referrals from kids you wouldn’t expect it from. As much as people want to say kids are resilient, there is a desperate need for teaching kids how to regulate emotions.”

Nash said teachers across all grade levels are grappling with behavioral issues in class.

“These kids don’t know how to deal with a pandemic; then you have the political climate here in Arizona and the way they are seeing stuff portrayed in the media—they are internalizing all that,” Nash said. “They think that’s how you behave. You kick and scream and call names to get your way.”

Declining test scores, Nash said, are giving an incomplete picture of the effect of COVID-19 on students.

“Scores in Chandler didn’t dip that much, but we were in person for three of the four quarters,” Nash said.

She also highlighted that some of the district’s more affluent students may not have actually taken the test if parents had the means to keep students at home learning online.

“What we could have seen is our top kiddos weren’t the kids who took the test, but the kids who may typically underperform and are under-resourced, that’s whose data we might be seeing,” she said. “That’s not a bad thing. It calls out the fact that we need some interventions.”

Fletcher said math, especially, requires students to comprehend one lesson to move onto another, and some of that may have been interrupted by virtual learning, which may have contributed to lower test scores.

“Math is completely different,” Fletcher said. “It’s harder to target instruction. Teachers can’t see kiddos faces when they are completely perplexed when they aren’t in the same room. Online, you submit a final product, but in person you can walk up and down the classroom and help along the way. I’m not making excuses. This is just really what we are seeing across the nation.”

Nash said knowing there are gaps and working to bridge those gaps in learning is all teachers and the district can do.

“We are calling it unfinished learning instead of learning loss because they haven’t lost anything,” Nash said. “A loss would be they went through a school year and then it’s gone. They didn’t get to do everything that year, so it’s unfinished. Not gone forever. I think kids internalize that language. It’s more of a growth mindset, unfinished learning.”

Bridging the gaps

Three rounds of federal funding called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds—more commonly known as ESSER—have been administered to districts across the country to combat COVID-19 issues in schools.

The first two rounds of funding for CUSD were used for technology, extra cleaning supplies and internet. A stipulation of the second and third rounds of funding is that some of it is to be used on addressing unfinished learning. The district received just over $16 million in the first two rounds of funding. An additional $30 million is expected in the third round of ESSER funding for the district, but a breakdown on how, officially, that will be spent has not been released.

Fletcher said the district is still writing its proposal for ESSER III funding, but she said the plan will include summer school and tutoring to address the knowledge gaps across grade levels.

State Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, said she believes what would really help students is smaller class sizes and more individualized instruction.

“Having smaller class sizes and adding trained instructional aides to classrooms, I think, would help students the most,” Pawlik said. “But that is an expensive proposition. Those ESSER funds need to be spent by 2024, and if districts use that funding to establish new positions, they would have to find a different way to fund those positions after 2024. It’s not a sustainable source of funding for personnel.”

Pawlik said Arizona has faced difficulties in education funding for the better part of three decades, and even recent measures—like the passage of Proposition 208 in 2020—to get more funding for schools has not bridged the gap between what the districts have and what they need.

“Really, we need to be giving grace to educators,” Pawlik said. “They are professionals, and they are doing the best they can with what they have. They are working so hard to get kids where they need to be.”

Rebecca Gau, executive director of Stand for Children Arizona, said she believes the state needs more data to see where students are and what strategies can be employed to help them get to where they need to be.

“Common sense would suggest that unfinished learning is more pronounced in families with less access to technology,” she said. “Then you have these age-appropriate mechanisms to determine pretty clearly how far a student needs to go to be at the appropriate level.”