According to data released on Tuesday by the state’s Department of Education, primary and secondary students studying remotely and in hybrid models last year lagged significantly in standardized test scores measuring achievement in math and English compared to students who learned in a classroom setting.
Data drawn from Smarter Balanced Assessments, Connecticut’s standardized test for students in grades 3 to 8, showed that remote learners in Connecticut at these grade levels showed a 15.6 percent decrease in English proficiency and a 25.7 percent decrease in math proficiency last year compared to their peers in 2018-19. Students enrolled in hybrid learning models showed a 10.1 percent drop in English proficiency and a 17.7 percent drop in math proficiency.
“What we learned, and it’s been affirmed in many different ways, is that across all grades, across most student groups, those who learned in-person lost the least ground academically, while those who learned in hybrid or in remote models showed substantially weaker achievement and growth during the pandemic,” Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer at the Department of Education, said in a press conference on Tuesday.
In response to the abrupt shutdown of schools in March 2020, the federal government allowed states to suspend normal standardized testing for the 2019-20 school year. Schools administered the tests between March and June of 2021. These data are the first available statewide standardized scores for students since the onset of the pandemic.
Students who spent most of last school year in a classroom setting performed at only slightly lower levels than their counterparts two years ago, with declines most notable in mathematics.
In Old Saybrook, for example, 73 percent of students performed at grade level in English two years ago — this year, that number dropped to 63.3 percent for students who attended classes in person. In math, 55.2 percent of students performed at grade level two years ago; this year, that number dropped to 44.6 percent for classroom settings.
In Lyme-Old Lyme, the percentage of students at grade level in English was 79.5 percent two years ago. This year, 77.5 percent of in-person learners met that standard. In math, the decline was greater — 79.1 percent of students performed at grade level two years ago, compared to 68.8 percent of in-person learners this year.
A different sort of year
Gopalakrishnan and Parisi said that the scores reflect that even for students who managed to attend classes in person, last year was anything but normal.
According to Parisi, social distancing removed much of the flexibility within the classrooms, and forcing teachers to hold classes live and on zoom limited how much time they could spend on individual instruction and on building relationships.
“We went from personalizing learning and having these mobile, flexible types of spaces in the classroom where students could determine where [they] learned best, whether it’s at a standing desk or in these small groups … and here, now, those were all removed,” said Parisi. “Students were spread out throughout the classroom with three to six feet in-between each other. And the teacher had to remain in corners of the classroom while tethered to technology and working off of different zoom rooms and the kids in front of them.”
“High needs” students — students learning English, students from low-income families and disabled students — saw a similar pattern of decline in scores as other students. In-person high needs students showed a decline of around 2 percent in their math and English scores, with much steeper drops for hybrid learners and remote models.
High needs students were also more likely to study remotely and far less likely to spend the year in a classroom setting. Only 1 in 5 high-need students attended school primarily in-person last year, compared to more than a third of students not defined as high needs.
15 to 20 percent of students learning remotely opted not to participate in standardized testing at all.
For the Smart Balance Assessments, the decrease in scores was consistently sharper in mathematics than in English, which Irene Parisi, chief academic officer at the State Department of Education, attributed to the hands-on nature of learning mathematics.
“Some of the instructional strategies required for that deep conceptual understanding of mathematics, you just could not do in this environment,” said Parisi.
She added, “You have to do math. You have to get messy with it. You have to interact with it in order to have that deep understanding to make those connections along those progressions.”
Acceleration not remediation
Districts will not be held accountable for the 2020-21 test scores, and Gopalakrishnan cautioned districts against using the data as a comparison to achievement in other districts.
“Many of these factors — how students attended and whether schools could stay open — were beyond the control of district and school leaders. It was dictated either by health factors or by parents choosing last year to want their children to study remotely,” he said.
Parisi said that districts should use the data to tailor teaching to more individual needs.The focus, she said, needs to be on “accelerating” learning rather than on “vicious cycles of remediation.”
Parisi said that the state was considering the idea of “high dosage tutoring” to speed up the learning process. For high school students, she said, the state was looking at ways for students to earn more credits and be ready to graduate at the same level as their peers. She said the state would also continue giving districts access to online tools and online curricula.
Parisi also said that educators should avoid making assumptions about a child based solely on his or her score.
“Support the child where they are … but give them access to content that is on grade level that they’re ready for, because then they’ll make those connections themselves and then they will grow,” she said. “When students are placed in front of that work, they rise with the occasion.”