Test results in Nebraska show significant barrier to pandemic learning loss

LINCOLN — The academic hole Nebraska’s students, teachers, parents and policymakers face became clearer Wednesday with the release of the state’s 2021-22 K-12 test results.

Results for student proficiency in math and language arts have been mixed amid a national decline in student performance on tests administered during the coronavirus pandemic.

Matthew Blomstedt, Nebraska Education Commissioner (Courtesy Department of Education)

Last year, math scores for third graders through eighth graders remained flat at 46%, while language arts scores fell from 48% to 47%, according to statistics from the Nebraska Department of Education. Two-thirds – 66% – passed the state’s new science test.

Scores in math and language skills were adjusted lower again starting in 2017, when the state began testing the majority of its students against more stringent college- and career-based standards. Under this new system, pre-pandemic national proficiency scores in language arts and math were just over 50%.

This year’s test found that 46% of the state’s high school juniors are proficient in language arts, 44% are proficient in math, and 48% are proficient in science.

Test scores, meanwhile, became an issue State Board of Education races this fall. On Wednesday, senators from both parties said the Legislature is ready to tackle the learning loss.

State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, the chair of the state legislature’s education committee, said lawmakers, policymakers and schools need to focus on tackling absenteeism, school staff, early childhood education, empowering teachers and re-involving parents in student learning focus.

“The test results were really exactly what we expected,” said Walz. “We expected a decline. I think we were really lucky that we were able to get our kids back to school earlier than others.”

State Senator Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, who has advocated for educational accountability and school choice, commended the department for maintaining the evaluation of student learning. She wants the legislature to focus on young student literacy, teacher training and special education.

“You can’t improve what you can’t see,” Linehan said. “If you don’t know the problem, you can’t solve it.”

Outgoing Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said the results show the students had lower learning disabilities than those in other states. He and the state senators thanked Nebraska teachers for their service during difficult times.

“Nebraska public schools have remained strong despite being impacted by the pandemic,” he said. “Our nationwide assessments show similar trends and now is the time for schools to focus their support on the areas that have the greatest need.”

Blomstedt and representatives of the Nebraska State Education Association expressed similar views At the end of October about the grades of the state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

On the NAEP, no state performed better than Nebraska in fourth-grade math, and only one state had higher scores in eighth-grade math. Nebraska was fourth in fourth grade and eighth in eighth grade.

But state tests show that the pandemic appears to have exacerbated Nebraska’s ongoing challenges in closing performance gaps between students who have an abundance and students who live in poverty.

The students who lost the most ground were students whose families have suffered the most during the pandemic, including students learning English and students of color.

State test results showed that less than 10% of English learners were proficient in math or the arts of language. Of those students with free or reduced lunches, a measure of poverty, less than a third scored highly in both subjects. Students with disabilities also fared worse during the pandemic.

Blomstedt emphasized how important it is to take action against the increase in the number of chronically absent students caused by the pandemic. That has remained about double what it was before the pandemic, with 77,000 students missing at least 10% of their school time in 2021-22.

Wednesday’s findings include the Nebraska Student-Centered Assessment System (NSCAS) and Accountability for a Quality Education System Today and Tomorrow (AQuESTT).

NSCAS tests learning in core subjects. About 99% of students typically take it, although that level has dropped to about 95% in 2020-21. AQuESTT evaluates schools to prioritize financial assistance to the schools that need it most.

Blomstedt said Nebraska schools would focus on increasing instruction time to help students catch up, but additional investment might be needed. He said the state needs to make targeted investments to keep improving academic growth, including special education, reading and encouraging participation.

Susanne Cramer, executive director of academic recovery and school improvement at Omaha Public Schools, said in a statement that testing is “a single data point” and that more context is needed.

Schools are more focused on helping students improve, testing them for growth from what they know when they arrive to what they know at different points throughout the year, she said.

She highlighted OPS gains in elementary school results and expressed concern about dips between sixth and eighth grades.

The district serves the largest number of poor students in the state.

She said in a recorded statement that administrators and teachers are focused on improving academic support, including tutoring and wider use of summer school.

“The additional investment in our students is really an investment in their future,” she said. “This is how we react to this data. This is how we react to all data.”

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