Scores from standardized tests last spring, the end of the first full year that Missouri schools operated during the COVID-19 pandemic, dropped in all subjects and grade levels, state education officials said Tuesday.

Initial results imply “that student performance has been impacted, and to varying degrees,” said Margie Vandeven, commissioner of education, in a call this week with news reporters.

Data released Tuesday by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show that across the state, 45% of students scored at advanced or proficient levels on the tests in English language arts. About 37% were advanced or proficient at science, and just 35% were advanced or proficient in math.

Standardized tests, also called the Missouri Assessment Program exams, were last taken by students in spring 2019, when 49% of students scored proficient or advanced in English and 42% in math. The tests were canceled in spring 2020 because of statewide school closures as the pandemic began to spread in the U.S.

A little more than half of students who were tested last year were learning in person, according to data from the education department. Another 10% learned exclusively online, while 31% were taught via a mix of both ways. Analysis of the data also showed that students scored higher when they learned in school, and students who learned online scored better when they had access to internet and a device.

Missouri School Boards’ Association Executive Director Melissa Randol in a statement said teachers and students “did a fantastic job under the circumstances during this pandemic.”

“We can’t lose sight of that,” she said.

Multiple factors

The 2020-21 academic year was marked by “unprecedented circumstances” including extended absenteeism due to illness and quarantine, new and changing modes of instruction, and sometimes less-than-reliable technology and internet connections, Vandeven said.

When the tests were administered in the spring, they were comparable with previous years, and results were reported using the same metrics and scales, said Lisa Sireno, a standards and assessment administrator with the state education department. All districts were asked to test at least 85% of their students, and the statewide student participation rate ultimately exceeded 90%, she said.

But education officials say the test scores can’t be compared with those from prior years because of the unique challenges facing schools last year. The State Board of Education has waived results for state and federal accountability purposes.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most aspects of last school year were not typical,” Vandeven said. “I urge stakeholders to use these data to learn from this experience and inform how to deploy resources to best support students, educators and schools.”

Sireno said the scores shouldn’t be used for “high-stakes” decisions, such as student grades or teacher evaluations. Instead, they should be used to inform schools on which students were most affected by COVID-19-disrupted learning, how different methods of instruction fared and whether access to the internet or computer devices played a role in student success.

“Statewide data are critical to understanding the impact of the pandemic’s disruption on learning, on how patterns of instruction have worked, to illuminate the digital divide, and to identify successes for students and teachers,” Sireno said.

To address the decline in scores, the state education department is offering professional learning opportunities for district leaders, providing math and English language arts consultants to classroom teachers, and making federal funding available for support initiatives, Sireno said.

Whether schools might be on track this year for a repeat of the 2020-21 year remains to be seen.

“It’s entirely too early to talk about any types of implications for standardized testing in the spring, but at this point in time, we’re continuing to move forward with the year as usual,” Vandeven said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

2020-21 statewide performance rates for end-of-course assessments

Note: The percentages listed are the percent of students who scored at each performance level.

Source: Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Subject Below basic Basic Proficient Advanced
English language arts 15.1% 29.7% 44.5% 10.7%
Math 30.0% 33.1% 21.4% 15.5%
Science 21.1% 45.0% 22.2% 11.7%

2020-21 statewide performance rates for grade-level assessments

Note: The percentages listed are the percent of students who scored at each performance level.

Source: Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Subject Below basic Basic Proficient Advanced
English language arts 17.8% 38.5% 24.9% 18.8%
Math 32.4% 32.7% 21.3% 13.6%
Science 26.9% 34.4% 26.2% 12.5%

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Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.