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Scores on Pa. standardized tests fell in 2021, but many students didn’t take them

The results released Friday by the Pennsylvania Department of Education were the first state assessments administered during the pandemic.

Scores fell in almost all grades and subjects tested last year, though fewer students took the assessments.
Scores fell in almost all grades and subjects tested last year, though fewer students took the assessments.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Scores on Pennsylvania’s standardized assessments fell last year in the state’s first official measure of how students fared during the pandemic. But tens of thousands fewer students took the tests than in 2019, and state officials cautioned against incomplete comparisons.

The state Department of Education on Friday released 2021 results from the Pennsylvania State Standardized Assessments — or PSSAs — given to third through eighth graders, as well as the Keystone Exams reported for 11th graders. With the exception of 11th-grade biology, student proficiency scores declined.

Third-grade PSSA proficiency scores, for instance, fell from 61.9% to 58.3% on English and 56% to 47.3% on math, while eighth-grade scores dropped from 57.9% to 52.6% on English and 32.2% to 22.1% on math.

While student participation on last year’s tests was lower — dropping from 98% in 2018-19 to 71%, according to state officials — education experts said the dip in scores still appeared to provide evidence of a pandemic impact on student learning.

“My first thought is, this is what we feared,” said Mary Jean Tecce DeCarlo, an associate professor of literacy studies at Drexel University. “I do think this represents a real drop.”

During the pandemic, “we know that learning experiences were more sporadic, and since kids were virtual, it was a more challenging academic environment,” said Jonathan Supovitz, a professor of leadership and policy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He said the scores were “not surprising, and it is also entirely consistent with other places in the country.”

State education officials downplayed the significance of the results.

“Historically, standardized assessment results have been an important part of understanding school performance and our work to close achievement and opportunity gaps. But this year’s results are anything but standard,” Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Sherri Smith said in a statement, adding that the pandemic “brought tremendous challenges to the school year.”

» READ MORE: COVID-19 has upended education. How will schools solve for learning loss?

Pennsylvania canceled its standardized tests in spring of 2020 as schools closed for in-person instruction. For 2021, schools were allowed to delay testing until the fall, though some held them during the spring while many students were still learning remotely.

The differing testing windows along with “sharply reduced student participation rates … make comparisons between school entities and across school years improper,” Smith said.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, which had unsuccessfully called on the federal government to waive testing requirements last year, said the assessments were “an exercise in compliance” that didn’t fully reflect student performance.

“Everyone would expect scores and participation rates to drop in this environment, and no one should be surprised that they have,” said the president of the teachers’ union, Rich Askey. He noted that Pennsylvania was not counting last year’s test results toward teacher evaluations.

Philadelphia School District officials said that while they “take monitoring student performance very seriously,” the results released Friday do not tell them much about what city students learned in 2020-21.

Tanya Wolford, chief of evaluation, research, and accountability said the district is still scrutinizing whether the students who took exams are representative of the school system as a whole, but that likely they are not. The district didn’t release its scores; the state Department of Education provides school-by-school scores but didn’t break out each district’s performance.

”We are definitely not using the scores in the aggregate for anything because of the anomalies in the testing window, the testing conditions,” Wolford said. Philadelphia administered the PSSAs in the spring, but less than 30% of district students returned for in-person learning, and of those eligible to take state assessments, about 60% opted out of exams.

Typically, about 53,000 Philadelphia children in grades 3 through 8 take PSSAs, with 96% to 98% of eligible students opting in. Just 9,000 took them last year. Keystones were given in the fall; about 6,000 of the 9,000 students eligible took the exams.

Statewide, among 11th graders last year, 62.4% were proficient in algebra, 67.6% in biology, and 49.6% in literature — a steep drop in the latter subject, with 71.5% scoring proficient in literature in 2019. (That same year, 63.3% of 11th graders scored proficient in algebra, and 63.2% in biology.)

However, literature scores were reported for only 11,000 students in 2021, according to the education department — less than 10% of the 119,000 reported in 2019. The number of biology tests also significantly dropped, from 119,000 to 57,000, while algebra tests saw a less dramatic decline, from 120,000 to 102,000.

That’s because the results for last year’s Keystones include tests administered during different years, said Brian Campbell, director of the education department’s bureau of curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Keystone results are reported for each 11th-grade cohort, but some take the tests earlier in high school, at the completion of the relevant course — meaning the cancellation of tests in 2020 affected last year’s results.