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Are kids still behind? 3 takeaways from Pa.’s latest standardized tests.

The damage done by the upheaval to the education system isn’t the same across the board — nor is it necessarily happening in the ways you might expect.

A student in first grade reads a book in Philadelphia.
A student in first grade reads a book in Philadelphia.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

The Pennsylvania standardized test results that came out this week echoed what had long been predicted and is now well-documented: Remote learning was as bad as you thought.

But the damage done by the upheaval to the education system isn’t the same across the board — nor is it necessarily happening in the ways you might expect.

The latest Pennsylvania System of State Assessments (PSSA) show that poor children have fallen further behind in some grade levels. At the same time, some of the steepest drops since the pandemic occurred in typically better-resourced suburban schools, a less-anticipated outcome.

Experts said the 2022 results — from tests administered to third through eighth graders this past spring — paint a broad picture of how Pennsylvania’s public education system is faring, providing data to policymakers that could inform recovery strategies.

For individual schools, however, answers may not be straightforward. Test scores are sensitive to demographics; a shift in a school’s population can affect results. And with the pandemic upending not just schools but family stability, factors outside the classroom come into play.

“We keep hearing ‘post-pandemic,’ but we are still living in it, 100%,” said Gina Guarino Buli, CEO of Renaissance Academy Charter School in Phoenixville, which has seen a stark drop in PSSA scores. “There’s still lots of effects that I think are going to take quite a while for students everywhere to recover from.”

Here are a few findings that emerged from a review of the latest testing data:

The pandemic exacerbated inequities for kids in poverty. But steep drops in scores occurred in more affluent Pa. communities as well.

Compared with 2019, some suburban schools in the Philadelphia region posted striking declines in math scores. Schools in the Quakertown, Pennridge, Central Bucks, and Methacton districts, for instance, saw proficiency decline by more than 25 percentage points.

Dave Thomas, spokesperson for the Pennridge district, where Pennridge Central Middle School saw a 26-percentage-point decline, said middle and high school math teachers were working with instructional coaches “to implement a math workshop model” that would provide more individualized instruction.

In the Upper Perkiomen School District, where math scores at the K-3 Marlborough Elementary dropped by 24 percentage points, a district spokesperson said the school’s third graders — the starting grade for taking the PSSAs — had faced disruption since first grade.

Even though students were back in person five days a week last year, many missed “a significant amount” of school days due to isolation and quarantine requirements, said the spokesperson, Alexis Jenofsky. “This class of third-grade students had never experienced a full ‘normal’ school year.” The district offers a half-day kindergarten program.

Jenofsky said the district was seeing improvements in student performance this year and had made changes, including adding full-day kindergarten and offering summer learning to at-risk students at all grade levels.

At Renaissance Academy, which saw a 30-percentage-point drop in math scores, Buli, the charter’s CEO, said the school was focusing on creating a stable environment. The K-12 charter — which enrolls 1,100 students from Norristown, Phoenixville, and surrounding districts — saw an increase in families eligible for free and reduced-price lunches since the pandemic, up from about 20% to 34%.

“That alone tells us families are dealing with many challenges,” Buli said. She said the school is providing uniforms and lunches — trying to address “all the things that could be distractors or roadblocks to the learning” — while noting that like many schools, it’s contending with a teacher shortage that makes it harder to create a consistent environment for students.

Buli said Advanced Placement scores for upper-level students increased last year, and the charter was looking at “what happened differently for older students” to garner those outcomes.

Achievement gaps widened for some younger students, but not for older ones.

In fourth grade, gaps between “historically underperforming” students — which the state has defined as students in poverty, English learners, and students with individualized education plans — and their peers slightly widened compared with before the pandemic. In eighth grade, however, the gaps narrowed.

The fact that proficiency gaps seemed to widen for younger children could reflect just how important early education is in providing a foundation for future learning, experts said. It also underscored the long-standing challenges faced by schools educating large numbers of students in poverty.

“It’s hard to learn history, science, math if your reading is two years behind,” said Joshua Glazer, an associate professor of education policy at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

Although drawing out the reasons for why gaps in fourth grade are widening and in eighth grade narrowing would require research, Glazer said, it’s clear that “for students from resource-deprived communities and homes” — who are particularly dependent on opportunities provided in school — kindergarten through second-grade reading instruction is critical.

“If we take that away, there are going to be long-term, devastating effects,” he said.

ELA scores continued to slide in 2022 for some of the youngest learners — unlike in upper grades, and unlike with math scores in most grades.

Compared with 2021 — the first round of testing in the wake of the pandemic — ELA scores for grades three through six fell in English language arts.

The further drops don’t surprise Mary Jean Tecce DeCarlo, an associate professor of literacy studies at Drexel University. Last year’s third graders, for instance — who dropped 6 percentage points in ELA compared with 2021 — were in first grade when the pandemic hit.

The 18 months that followed “are so critical in the area of phonics instruction,” DeCarlo said. During that period, she said, kids can advance from reading phrases like “the fat cat sat on the mat” to the Magic Tree House and basic chapter books.

She noted that student teachers she oversaw during the pandemic reported having classes of 35 third graders in the Philadelphia School District with as few as six present on Zoom.

“We might see echoes of this for a little while,” DeCarlo said.

Big drops in scores at a given school don’t automatically point to a particular problem, experts said. Rather, “it’s more like a red-flag system,” said DeCarlo. A school with a sizable decline in ELA, for instance, might decide to incorporate phonics into an additional year of schooling, she said.

Glazer, of George Washington University, said “time is of the essence” in addressing learning gaps.

“A small gap in first grade can turn into a very large gap by the time you get to high school,” he said. “There’s a real payoff, a real benefit, to trying to address the learning loss that resulted from the pandemic as quickly as possible.”