Pandemic-year test results show declines for Florida students

Math scores saw bigger dips than those for language arts, according to data released Thursday by the state Department of Education.
Fourth-graders Austin Corcoran, 9, left, and Tyler Williams, 10, work together on a math lesson on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020 at Innovations Preparatory Academy in Wesley Chapel.
Fourth-graders Austin Corcoran, 9, left, and Tyler Williams, 10, work together on a math lesson on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020 at Innovations Preparatory Academy in Wesley Chapel. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published July 29, 2021|Updated July 29, 2021

Florida educators began sifting through mountains of testing data Thursday in an effort to determine whether predicted learning losses occurred during a year that saw many students never enter a classroom.

The statewide results showed children who tested in 2021 achieved grade-level expectations in both language arts and math at lower percentages than those who took exams in 2019 — the last time the Florida Standards Assessments were given. The state canceled the tests in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, Department of Education officials insisted that the testing take place. But education commissioner Richard Corcoran agreed to use the scores to determine how individual students progressed rather than for the usual high-stakes purposes such as third-grade promotion and high school graduation.

Related: Florida removes high-stakes consequences from spring testing

Schools can request to use their outcomes if they help get out of state oversight for past poor performance. Lakewood Elementary in Pinellas, for example, is on track to receive an A grade from the state, according to district calculations, after years of struggle and an F in 2019. “What an incredible year for Pinellas County Schools and its students,” superintendent Mike Grego said.

But the results will not be held against schools or students if they slipped, and letter grades will not be announced until schools and districts have a chance to review the data.

Despite this unusual flexibility from the state, complaints continued from opponents to high stakes testing.

Once again, standardized exam scores are not telling us anything useful for improving learning or equity, said Bob Schaeffer, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “It’s pointless to try to measure educational health with such defective ‘thermometers,’ let alone to believe that they can help improve academic quality or equity.”

Early predictions anticipated children would do worse in language arts. The dips in that subject, though, were smaller than those in math.

The outcomes also offered insight into the performance of at-home students compared to those who returned to classrooms at the strong urging of state officials.

Related: Tampa Bay students lost ground during the pandemic, mostly in math
Related: Florida makes it official: Remote learning will continue next semester

Spring scores showed that higher percentages of online students achieved grade-level expectations in language arts than those who attended in person. For the high school language arts exam, 54 percent of remote learners met expectations, compared to 48 percent of in-school students.

The opposite held true for math. In the elementary grades, for example, 55 percent of in-person students scored at grade level or above in math, compared to 44 percent of those who stayed at home. Districts in the Tampa Bay area saw results similar to the state trends.

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Of note, the Pinellas district had smaller declines in students at grade level than its neighbors in both subjects. It also stood out as the only large district in Florida to see an increase in students passing the Algebra I end-of-course exam that’s required for high school graduation.

While the statewide percentage passing that exam dropped from 60 percent in 2019 to 47 percent in 2021, Pinellas saw its rate rise from 55 percent to 57 percent.

Grego praised teachers, administrators, support staff and families in his statement Thursday.

In Pasco, which saw a 5-point drop in reading and a 10-point drop in math, superintendent Kurt Browning emphasized the need to return to steady routines as the coming school year gets under way.

“This past school year underscores the importance of a stable and consistent learning environment with positive interactions between students and teachers,” Browning said. ”Our challenge going forward is to enhance our sense of urgency and to provide the support that students need to get back on track.”

In Hillsborough, the data released Thursday will also inform district leaders about the fate of dozens of schools on state lists for disappointing performance.

In a measured statement, superintendent Addison Davis said, “we expected scores to be lower when compared to pre-pandemic assessments. However, I am encouraged to see there is not as much learning loss as anticipated in Hillsborough County Public Schools, especially when compared to other areas of the state.”

He described a “monumental task ahead of us” to close learning gaps in all ages. “We plan to strategically utilize this important data and implement small group instruction in concert with targeted supports to meet our students’ needs in the coming year,” he said.

Karyn Lewis, a researcher with the nonprofit educational testing firm NWEA, said an initial look at Florida’s data suggests it falls in line with what’s happening nationally.

Early indications were that reading would not suffer as much as anticipated, but that bright spot dimmed as the year wore on, she said. The differences among different demographic groups were not surprising, Lewis added.

She cautioned against reading too much into the results of students who stayed home compared to those who returned to schools. Without knowing where those children started academically and what types of supports they had throughout the year, she said, it could be irresponsible to attempt to draw conclusions from those numbers.

“This was not a randomized experiment,” Lewis said.

She also suggested that school districts should take a close look at the students who did not test, even though the state’s participation rate surpassed 90 percent.

“It’s important to know whose voices are missing,” she said, noting the groups less likely to test could be those most negatively impacted by the pandemic.

Most important, Lewis said, everyone must keep in mind that students are “not just their test scores,” and the data serves to give insights into how to help them succeed. With so much federal financial support available, she said, schools need to dig through the information to find where the needs are greatest and then direct resources appropriately.

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