Thanks to efforts by the State Education Department (SED) to stonewall the release of 2021-22 testing data, the degree of learning among New York students during Covid remains largely a puzzle. Yesterday, however, a major piece fell into place.

Soon after SED finally allowed districts to publicize their own results, New York City —the largest district in the country and home to more than one third of public school students in the state —set an example worthy of approbation and emulation by publishing their grade 3-8 test results in math and English language arts (ELA).

Overall, scores reveal a sizable decline in math proficiency to 37.9 percent compared to 45.6 percent in 2019, the last time scores were administered on a scale large enough to foster meaningful comparison. ELA proficiency meanwhile rose to 49 percent from 47.4 percent in 2019. That ELA scores increased amidst the disruptions caused by the pandemic qualifies as a pleasant surprise, but that math and ELA proficiency were affected differently does not. Once children are literate, ELA learning is more easily self-directed and much of it occurs outside the classroom. “Once literate” is the opportune phrase here. Third grade proficiency declined from 53.3 to 49.2 percent and fourth grade proficiency from 49.6 to 43.6 percent.

Math tends not to be practiced at home beyond basic numeracy, and mastery of one field (e.g. geometry) does not readily lend itself to mastery of another (e.g. calculus). In fact, grade 8 students experienced the largest decline in math scores, from 36 percent in 2019 to 25 percent in 2022.

Results from the NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) — also known as the “nation’s report card” — reveal that national achievement declined in math and reading, with the decrease in the former more pronounced.

While not all states have released 2022 state assessment scores, there is some evidence that New York City may have fared better than the nation’s other largest urban districts in terms of proficiency levels compared to 2019-20. In Chicago, preliminary results suggest that math proficiency declined to 15 percent from 25 percent, while reading declined from 28 to 20 percent. In Los Angeles, ELA proficiency declined from 43.9 to 41.7 percent, and math from 33.5 to 28.5 percent. In Miami-Dade County, ELA proficiency declined from 60 to 56 percent. Math proficiency declined from 61 percent to 57 percent. In Clark County, NV (Las Vegas), math proficiency dropped from 37.5 to 26.4 percent, and ELA proficiency from 48.5 to 41.2 percent.

Each state devises its own test and measure of proficiency, so comparisons do not provide insight into how the districts compare in absolute terms, but they do provide some clue as to relative changes in achievement. Comparison on the basis of overall performance will be possible once NAEP releases its district and state performance outcomes, which are expected in the coming weeks.

In terms of comparison across New York City, the Bronx was the only borough to experience a decline in ELA, albeit a small one. It also experienced the largest decline in math. The Bronx was the lowest-performing borough in the city before the pandemic. That it suffered the worst learning loss tracks with the national trend that learning loss exacerbated racial and economic achievement gaps.

 

Parents outside of New York City might be curious what these results portend for the rest of the state. There are mixed signals as to whether New York might fare better or worse than other states. On one hand, NAEP results indicate that while schools in every setting declined in math, urban and rural areas held steady in ELA while suburban districts declined. On the other hand, districts that serve more socioeconomically disadvantaged students tended to fare worse in both ELA and math.

Of course, speculation wouldn’t be necessary if SED followed its historical protocols on the public release of statewide exam data. Until that day comes, hopefully more individual school districts throughout the state will embrace transparency and follow in Gotham’s footsteps.

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