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NAEP test results show big declines in math, wide gaps among Colorado students

A girl in a white and blue shirt with black shirt sits at a tan desk.

Mandated by Congress, the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests math and reading skills roughly every two years among a random sampling of students.

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Colorado students posted the lowest scores in more than a decade on the test known as “the nation’s report card,” with the steepest declines in middle school math and with Hispanic students losing the most ground. And while Colorado students posted better reading scores than did students in 27 other states, that was largely because other states lost even more ground. 

The learning loss from 2019 to 2022 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP, points to the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the education of children in almost every pocket of Colorado and the nation. 

While research has already shown that academic progress reversed, NAEP results released Monday provide the most detailed and authoritative accounting yet, with data coming from a representative set of students nationwide and allowing for comparisons across states and some cities.

“The results are appalling and unacceptable,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said. “This is a moment of truth. How we respond will determine our standing in the world.”

This year’s results reaffirm what Colorado education leaders and teachers already knew thanks to statewide assessments: Students fell behind.

But parents, teachers, and students are working hard to rebound, said Joyce Zurkowski, Colorado Department of Education chief assessment officer.

“There are some indications that things are on the way back up,” she said. “But there’s work to do.”

What is NAEP?

Mandated by Congress, the national assessment tests math and reading skills in fourth and eighth grades roughly every two years among a random sampling of students — about 450,000 students in 10,000 schools in 2022. The administrators break down scores by state and for select cities that vary with each test.

Denver was one of 26 urban districts that NAEP sampled last winter. Outside of those cities, NAEP does not issue district scores.

Unlike state exams, the NAEP tests are low stakes for students, teachers, and schools. But the NAEP test offers a valuable look at the progress of the nation.

“We knew results would reflect historic disruptions to schools,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which organizes the test. “NAEP results should give us all pause. They also remind us how essential schools are for our children and families.”

Colorado dip in math skills

The Colorado Measure of Academic Success, or CMAS, standardized tests show students recovering ground from 2021 but still below pre-pandemic levels in most cases. Similar to NAEP, the state’s test scores show particularly concerning drops in middle school math scores and draw attention to the impacts on students who transitioned to more complex material in a highly disrupted environment. 

NAEP shows fourth grade Colorado math scores declined steeply. Proficiency dropped by one-quarter, from about 44% of students in 2019 to 36% of students this year. Eighth grade math proficiency fell by about the same proportion, from 37% of students in 2019 to 28% this year.

Colorado reading skills did not decline as much. On the fourth-grade test, 38% of students tested proficient, down from 40% in 2019. In eighth grade, 34% of students tested proficient, compared with 38% in 2019.

In Denver, reading scores declined similarly. Fourth-grade proficiency scores fell from 32% to 29%, and eighth-grade scores fell from 29% to 28% — which may not be statistically significant — from 2019. 

Denver fourth-grade math proficiency dipped from 35% of students in 2019 to 28% this year. Eighth grade proficiency also fell, from 29% in 2019 to 22% of students this year.

In both Colorado and Denver, Hispanic students experienced greater declines in most grades and subjects than did other student groups. The pandemic pummeled Colorado’s Hispanic families, who have suffered higher death rates and more job losses. An estimated two-thirds of Colorado children without internet access are Hispanic, and many of them had parents working essential jobs and who could not stay home with them.

Zurkowski said learning gaps among Hispanics remain an area of “significant concern.” The state has some of the largest gaps in the nation between Hispanic and white students. 

Students faced many challenges during COVID

The pandemic imposed hardships and barriers to student learning: switches between remote and hybrid classes, quarantines and other disruptions, spotty internet access, and general instability. Students also experienced major stressors, like parents losing jobs and caregivers falling ill and dying. 

Melissa Snyder, a Cherry Creek School District fourth grade teacher, said student absenteeism has soared since the start of the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of pieces to the puzzle,” said Snyder, who teaches at Pine Ridge Elementary. “Everything with COVID is so much more complex.”

Lorelei Jackson, a Denver Language School eighth grade math teacher, said teachers had to choose which lessons to teach and students are missing skills they would normally have learned.

“We wanted to make sure that we were focusing on what was going to be the most impactful for students,” she said. And now, “we’re seeing those gaps.”

A Chalkbeat analysis found mixed evidence on the link between remote learning and changes in state test scores, with some correlation in math and fourth-grade reading but none in eighth-grade reading. More granular research has shown that students who experienced more virtual learning tended to fall further behind.

The Colorado education department didn’t require districts to report changes in learning mode, which sometimes varied weekly, but its staff did try to track who was in-person, remote, or hybrid using district websites and Facebook pages. Using state data, the COVID-19 School Data Hub estimates that Colorado students on average spent 28% of their time learning in person during the 2020-21 school year.

Many rural districts ran a near-normal school year while larger urban and suburban districts spent more time in remote learning. Even during in-person learning, frequent quarantines and absences due to illness created major disruptions. 

Mary Hulac, a language arts teacher at Greeley’s Prairie Heights Middle School, said the disruption still resonates among students and saps them of motivation for school and even outside activities.

“They’re afraid of risk and maybe being wrong or being rejected,” she said.

How can Colorado rebound?

Last year, Colorado leaders mapped out how to spend $180 million of $1.5 billion in federal relief money for schools. The rest went directly to school districts. The state focused its funds on grants for instructional materials, tutors, after-school programs, and training, according to Scott Jones, Colorado Department of Education chief strategic recovery officer.

The money helps get students one-on-one help to address areas where they are falling behind, Jones said. He called for patience in letting those investments work for students.

“This is not going to be a swift return,” He said. “We’re definitely looking at how we look at the work over a length of time and supporting districts even as the extra funds are spent and expire in 2024.”

Denver Public Schools has invested some of its federal COVID funding in tutoring and expanding summer school. The district distributed some money to schools directly to use as they saw fit. Many used it to hire extra staff.

The district also set aside $12 million for services such as speech therapy or small-group reading for students with disabilities to make up for what they may have missed during remote learning. But at the end of last school year, much of that money remained unspent.

Denver is focused on acceleration, which means teaching students at their grade level with support, rather than on remedial lessons. Whether that will work is a subject of nationwide debate.

Nicholas Martinez, of the advocacy organization Transform Education Now, said Denver hasn’t approached the issue with enough urgency.

“These are not new problems,” Martinez said. “Your ZIP code defining your opportunity is not new. Looking at the data and having an honest conversation means we have to do better.”

Melanie Asmar, Matt Barnum, and Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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