How much learning loss did the state’s school children suffer during the pandemic?

Nationwide test results revealing major pandemic learning loss have been front page news this month. But the public knows relatively little about the extent of the damage done here in the Empire State.

That’s in part because the State Education Department (SED) has yet to share all it knows with the rest of us.

The agency is in possession of district and school-level data showing the results of the 2021-22 administration of state-wide tests in English Language Acquisition (ELA) and mathematics taken by kids in grades 3 through 8.

Traditionally, district scores with aggregated data were publicly released in late summer and schools soon thereafter received student-level data to distribute to families. In 2018-19 (the last normal year of testing), for example, district scores were published on August 22nd and schools received student-level data on August 27th, which they then distributed to families.

That was then.

A June memo quietly handed down by SED indicates the agency is not exactly fast-tracking the release of the much-anticipated results of the first complete test administration since the onset of Covid.

It could be in the slow lane.

This year, scores were released to districts in August, but the June 30 SED memo describes “a new process” in which the state assessment data will be released at a non-specified time “this fall.”

The cryptically-worded memo states, in part:

Historically, the Department released preliminary statewide assessment data to districts on an embargoed basis soon after the start of the school year and publicly released the preliminary data on the NYSED website and through a news release. Under the new streamlined process, districts will receive their preliminary data in August so it can be used to help inform instructional decisions and to develop individualized learning plans for students at the start of the 2022-23 school. This will also allow parents to receive their student’s information much earlier than in past years. The Department will move to publicly release all final state assessment data – including Regents exams – at the same time this fall. (bold font on actual memo) 

The delay is then justified as an effort to “increase data transparency and eliminate data confusion.” Color me confused.

SED never before labeled the publicly released state assessment data as “preliminary.” Several New York education experts we consulted verified they’d never heard it described that way or been encouraged to treat it as such.

Furthermore, if the publicly released scores in the past were only “preliminary” why didn’t the state release separate preliminary and final data sets, as it routinely does with student enrollment counts?

In short, there’s no clear reason why the test data SED currently possesses should not be considered any less final or suitable for public release than it was in the past.

The assessment results SED holds are of great interest. The tests were cancelled entirely for the 2019-20 academic year and only about 20% of students in grades 3-8 participated in 2020-21. The extent of learning loss incurred in New York through the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures remains murky.

Moreover, the state’s school districts got $9 billion in federal pandemic emergency aid through the American Rescue Plan alone, a portion of which must be used to address learning loss. It would be easier for the public to judge if that money is well spent if it knew the extent of learning loss and the degree to which it varies across regions, school districts and student subgroups.

What’s driving the new data policy we don’t know. It could be simply bureaucratic ineptitude. We do know SED has yet to make a convincing case for the delay. And recent Albany history around data transparency invites skepticism and reveals the benefit of public pressure.

Therefore, since SED did not hand over the data when we asked for it earlier this week, the Empire Center yesterday issued a FOIL request for the full 2021-22 assessment results (data we will make fully public in a searchable, user-friendly format if and when we receive it from SED).

A final note: With the general election two months away, education is sure to be a top-of-mind issue for many New Yorkers. When they go to the polls, residents deserve to be armed with a full picture of the current condition of education in the Empire State.

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