L.A. student tests show alarming pandemic learning setbacks

LA Unified test results released Friday showed the harsh reality of the pandemic’s impact on learning at all grade levels, with about 72% of students failing state standards in math and about 58% failing standards in English, deep setbacks for the majority by Los Angeles students who were already far behind.

The notes show that approx Five years of gradual academic progress in the nation’s second-largest school district has been reversed, LA Schools Supt. Alberto Carvalho said Friday.

“The pandemic has had a major impact on the performance of our students,” said Carvalho, speaking at a news conference at Aragon Avenue Elementary School in Cypress Park. “Children in particular, who before the pandemic, as we expected, were vulnerable and in a fragile state, have lost the most ground.”

Carvalho said he wants to make up two years of lost ground this year and make up five years of setbacks over the next two years.

The results of the state’s 2022 Smarter Balanced Assessments in LA Unified reflect a five point increase in the percentage of students failing math standards and a two percentage point increase for the English language arts academic year prior to the 2018-19 Pandemic.

The declines are significant in a district where, prior to the pandemic, most students were failing to meet state standards in English or math, with scores that were several percentage points below the state’s overall scores and large performance differences between student groups.

The results showed declines in almost all grade levels and many groups of students. They are of particular concern for older students and some of the most vulnerable groups.

About 81% of eleventh graders did not meet class standards in math. About 83% of black students, 78% of Latino students, and 77% of economically disadvantaged students failed to meet math standards.

Girls experienced some of the biggest declines in performance – nearly 73% did not meet math standards in 2022, compared to 67% before the pandemic.

“It’s an anomaly because in recent years, female students have actually outperformed male students in math and science courses,” Carvalho said. “This is a regression that deserves deep, in-depth analysis and research.”

While these test results were widely expected, they were a cause for concern among experts and advocates.

The types of students who have fared the worst “are not small subgroups in California, especially in LA,” said UCLA education professor Tyrone Howard. “This has consequences for us as a state, as a city [and] I think it poses great challenges to who we are and who we want to be when we are not aware of who is being left behind.”

The district released a summary of the totals on Friday, but did not include detailed breakdowns by student race, gender and economic groups. This data was described in a September 1 Board of Education report, marked “not for publication,” obtained from The Times.

Results from Smarter Balanced assessments, which measure whether students meet state standards, have been limited since the pandemic began, making it difficult to assess student progress during the past two school years of distance learning and other pandemic disruptions.

Testing was canceled in the 2019-20 school year when campus closed early in the pandemic. The following school year, 2020-21, flexibility was given to districts, and many, including LA Unified, largely chose to conduct their own locally selected assessments rather than the statewide tests.

For these reasons, the 2021-22 tests provide the first opportunity to broadly compare pre-pandemic performance to today.

Although the California Department of Education allows school systems to publish their results, it has not published statewide results on its website that would allow the public to search results by county. But experts expect performance hits in districts across the state.

Prior to the pandemic, a majority of students across Los Angeles were already struggling to meet state standards. In 2018-19, the final year of school before the pandemic, 67% of LA Unified students failed to meet math standards and 56% failed to meet English standards, with scores for Black, Hispanic and low-income students being significantly lower.

Carvalho has pledged to improve student performance on national assessments as part of the strategic plan he unveiled earlier this year.

The Face of LA School Supt. Alberto Carvalho.

support Alberto M. Carvalho said he wants to make up two years of lost ground this year and five years of setbacks over the next two years.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

By 2026, the goal is to bring third graders an average of 30 points closer to meeting standards on the English test compared to 2022 results. Carvalho aims to bring third through eighth graders an average of 40 points closer to math. The tests are administered by students in third through eighth and eleventh grade and are graded with a range of approximately 2,000 to 3,000 points.

Achieving the goals would bring the students much closer to English proficiency. Third graders are now, on average, about 33 points from meeting English standards, according to the board’s report.

But in math, many students are much further away from meeting the standards. Eighth graders, for example, are on average about 91 points off the standards. So even if the goal is achieved, the students will still lag far behind.

The district’s strategies for addressing the setbacks include using assessment data to support lesson planning, implementing “high impact” intervention programs, and offering multiple opportunities for intervention and credit recovery during and outside of the regular school day.

Ana Ponce, executive director of GPSN, a local education advocacy group, urged LA Unified to “focus its energies on where the real damage has occurred,” with targeted investments for the students most impacted by the pandemic.

She also said the district should release more detailed assessment data.

“The current data release from Los Angeles Unified does not allow us to examine whether our most vulnerable students were academically most affected,” said Ponce. “This information is long overdue.”

Carvalho also revealed what he characterizes as part of the district’s learner recovery strategy: a counter-proposal for negotiations with United Teachers Los Angeles. The package includes a 4% salary increase and a 3% bonus for both this year and next. It also targets areas with high need for special attention. For example, nurses would be offered a $20,000 pay rise to make district pay more competitive with the private market.

The union is calling for a flat-rate 10% wage increase for each of the next two years in a package of demands detailed like the county’s.

The district’s test results are another data point in an increasingly clear picture of the negative impact of the pandemic and school closures on student academic performance.

Earlier this month, the results of the national reading and math tests for 9-year-olds showed the sharpest declines in decades, with the biggest declines among children who were already struggling.

However, experts warned that the worrying test results across the country are not just the result of the pandemic. They are the result of strains on education systems that have long been inadequate, particularly in mathematics and for the most vulnerable groups of students.

And they said the way to solve the problems is not to do more of the same.

“This requires a collective anger at why we allowed these gaps in the first place,” said UCLA’s Howard. “We know the zip codes, we know the neighborhoods, we know the students who suffer from cumulative disadvantage.”

Howard said schools need to develop efforts that focus intensely on the students who are lagging behind the most.

“This is an opportunity for a strategic approach, to say, ‘How do we target certain groups?’ We know who they are,” he said, including black students, Latino students, English learners and students with disabilities.

Rick Miller, executive director of CORE Districts, a consortium of major California school districts, said there is now a “generational challenge” ahead of educators.

In math, in particular, it was clear before the pandemic that many students weren’t learning the basic skills needed to advance to higher positions, Miller said.

For example, students often learn how to get the right answer by multiplying fractions like one and a half by two thirds.

But “they don’t understand why 1/2 times 2/3 equals this answer,” Miller said. “Children just learn to react. They imitate what you showed them in class. They don’t really learn it.”

“We need to go back into the system and think differently about how we teach these fundamental skills,” he said.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-09/los-angeles-student-test-scores-pandemic-learning-setbacks L.A. student tests show alarming pandemic learning setbacks

Alley Einstein

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