Math, reading student test scores tumble in Kansas amid COVID-19 pandemic

Latest data compares 2021 to 2019, after no testing in 2020

By: - November 15, 2021 1:10 pm
Randy Watson, commissioner of the Kansas State Department of Education, said the unprecedented influence of COVID-19 pushed down public school district assessment scores in math and reading when comparing 2021 to 2019. No testing was conducted in 2020. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

Randy Watson, commissioner of the Kansas State Department of Education, said the unprecedented influence of COVID-19 pushed down public school district assessment scores in math and reading when comparing 2021 to 2019. No testing was conducted in 2020. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Unprecedented disruption of classroom instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a drop in math and reading standardized test scores among 476,000 public school students in Kansas with the steepest assessment damage among children struggling with math.

Information released by the Kansas State Department of Education offered the first statewide evaluation of student performance in these key subject areas since the 2019 report. No testing was conducted in 2020 as the pandemic derailed normal school activities for students and educators in Kansas by pushing instruction online from March until the end of the school year.

“Every data point we have is down,” said Randy Watson, commissioner of the Kansas State Department of Education. “So is everyone else’s across the country.”

The 2021 Kansas report on math for all students indicated 7.8% tested at the highest proficiency level, a decline of 1.5 percentage points since 2019, and 20% scored at the next-highest level, a reduction of 3.2 percentage points since 2019. The portion of students at the lowest level of achievement in math surged to 34.3%, a disturbing escalation of 6.1 percentage points.

In reading, the damage to Kansas students was less severe when comparing 2021 and 2019 results. In 2021, 8% of students tested in English and language arts reached the highest proficiency level, a setback of 0.7 percentage points compared to 2019. In 2021, 30.3% of students were at the lowest level of achievement on math exams, a wrong-way change of 0.9 percentage points from 2019.

Mark Tallman, who works on K-12 education issues for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said slippage in student achievement was widely anticipated. The 2021 report was unusual because 12,000 fewer students participated in testing as public school enrollment suffered and some remote-learner students didn’t have access to supervised settings to take exams, he said.

Kansas public school districts in Kansas were beneficiaries of $1 billion in federal aid designed to address student pandemic needs. School districts also have been receiving millions of dollars in additional annual state appropriations as a result of the Gannon school funding lawsuit.

The influx of cash and decline in math and reading test scores is likely to drive debate in the 2022 legislative session on expanding a statewide program offering tax credits for support low-income students who enroll in private schools, Tallman said.

“Many education leaders have said it will take time for additional funding to have an impact,” Tallman said. “However, many legislators are impatient to see results from higher funding and some say what they see as the slow pace means the state should consider expanding aid to students attending alternatives to public schools.”

More than twice the percentage of low-income students scored in the lowest level on both reading and math than wealthier students in 2021.

David Dorsey, senior education policy fellow with the Kansas Policy Institute, said the “unacceptably low test scores” in 2021 ought to prompt the state Department of Education to recommit to upgrading student achievement in fundamental academic skills.

Watson, commissioner of education in Kansas, said consequences of the pandemic continued to unfold for students, parents, teachers and administrators engaged in the public school system. The coronavirus variant known as Delta is sickening, hospitalizing and killing people more than 18 months after COVID-19 shook the foundation of education in early 2020, he said.

“People are still, unfortunately, passing away,” Watson said. “What you see is a weariness.”

He said as of October more than 30 school district superintendents had filed a notice of retirement, an unusually high number for that point in the academic year. He said there had been a lack of continuity among classroom teachers as they grappled with online instruction, quarantines and illnesses. Parents have made their displeasure known at school board meetings across Kansas, he said.

Kansas assessment results for the state, districts and schools are available at the state Department of Education’s Data Central website portal.

The Kansas Board of Education set goals for moving more students into the two highest of four levels of achievement on standardized tests. The state board also adopted broader educational outcomes, including graduation rates, postsecondary participation, kindergarten readiness, implementation of individual student plans of study and promotion of social and emotional growth.

Watson said 88.3% of Kansas high school seniors graduated in 2020, an improvement of 2.6 percentage points. The nearly 12,000 students who didn’t earn a diploma represented 4,000 to 5,000 students, he said. It won’t be a surprise if the 2021 graduation rate dips below the previous year’s mark, he said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.