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Statewide testing shows low scores in first look at COVID impact

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Student test results released on Thursday showed overall disappointing scores in the first statewide data revealing the impact of COVID-19 on learning.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey said that the low scores were expected due to complications with learning during the pandemic all last school year.

“When students don’t have a teacher in the classroom with them it is much more difficult for them to learn,” Mackey said. “We need students in the classroom with teachers as much as possible, and so the scores did go down and that is a trend we are seeing all across the country.”

Just more than half of the state’s third graders tested as proficient in English Language Arts, while 40% tested at basic grade level and 10% tested below grade level. Among eighth graders, 52% tested as proficient in ELA, while 40% had basic grade-level skills and 9% were below grade level.

Math scores were worse. Just 30% of the state’s third graders tested proficient in math, while 37% tested at basic grade level and 33% tested below grade level. Among eighth graders, just 14% tested proficient in math, while 60% had basic grade-level skills and 26% were below grade level.

Mackey said he has heard from principals and superintendents that there was a strong emphasis placed on the science of reading last year due to the Literacy Act’s passage in 2019.

“During the time that schools were hybrid or they were closed down mostly, what happened was that teachers focused on reading to the detriment of mathematics in many cases and so we see that math scores dropped even more than reading scores, which is not surprising,” Mackey said.

The results were shown at a work session meeting of the State Board of Education in Montgomery. Mackey said the numbers are preliminary and that more comprehensive district-level data will be released later this month.

The test results are from the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program, or ACAP, which is given to second through eighth graders on math and reading. Fourth, sixth, and eighth graders are also tested in science.

The test was given for the first time this spring but was meant to be given in spring of 2020. The pandemic halted any statewide assessments from being taken. Mackey cautioned people from comparing this year’s data to spring 2019 data because the test is brand new and that teachers and students faced many difficulties last school year.

“These numbers give us a 30,000-foot view and we need that view. We need to focus on the things that we have to do like support our reading coaches and getting our math coaches out there,” Mackey said during the meeting.

One statistic of note was the English Language Arts scores for the state’s second graders. Part of that category includes reading proficiency, which under the Alabama Literacy Act, will be used to determine whether third-grade students continue to the fourth grade or get retained.

For second graders in Spring 2021, 19% tested below grade level for ELA and only 43% were proficient. Those second graders are now in third grade.

The complete reading data that relates to the Alabama Literacy Act won’t be ready until the October state school board meeting, Mackey said, but he expects it to track with the English language scores released Thursday.

State Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, sponsored the Literacy Act and opposed a bill delaying the law’s implementation by two years, saying more data is needed. On Thursday, Collins said that regardless of whether changes in the law are made when the Legislature meets in January, students who are struggling to read need help.

“It’s not just about numbers and scores,” Collins said. “It’s about how we do not give up on these kids in the third grade? How do we come up with a plan that helps students who have already left third grade and still can’t read?”

She said those discussions are already happening and more funding to reading initiatives could be discussed when lawmakers meet next session.

Proficiency levels for the test are graded on four levels. Mackey said they label levels three and four as students who are “proficient” which he describes as students who are testing high in their grade level or even above it. Level two is on grade level; level one is below grade level.

The second-grade testing has not been done before in the state and it is used to study growth, Mackey said.

The ACAP english language arts test evaluates students reading, writing, grammar skills and in later years will involve a listening component.

The participation rate for the tests was overall high in the state, with science at 92.8%, math at 93.7% and English language arts at 93.6%.

Angela Martin, assistant state superintendent of evaluation, accountability and support at ALSDE, said there were some districts who had as low as 52% in participation.

Martin said once the district level is released they will be able to see more clearly if low participation rates correlate to which districts were virtual or not.

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