Editor’s Note: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of Fordham.
Earlier this month, the federal government released the latest batch of national test score data tracking changes in the achievement of nine-year-olds since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The announcement resulted in ominous headlines in nearly every major national news outlet, with the Washington Postthat “American students’ test scores plunge to levels unseen for decades” and the New York Times that the pandemic “Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading.”
The trends documented in these articles are many ways old news, both because the national data merely confirmed what a wave of state assessments andhad a year earlier and because the new figures could not speak to the most policy-relevant questions: Has student achievement begun to recover from the initial pandemic disruptions? And if so, at what rate, in which subjects, and among which student groups?
Fortunately, myexamining the results from Ohio’s spring state exams answers exactly these questions. The analysis focuses on student achievement in both spring 2021 and spring 2022, comparing each cohort to performance on the same exams among otherwise similar students prior to the pandemic. Overall, it shows both the impressive progress Ohio students made last year, as well as the considerable learning shortfalls that still remain, especially in the oldest grades.
On the positive front, the spring assessments confirmed the encouraging news revealed by the, which showed that English language arts (ELA) achievement among third graders had charted an impressive rebound a year after plunging in the early months of the pandemic. The spring ELA exams, which included many more grades, showed similar gains among most tested elementary and middle school grades. Although students remain between one-third and two-thirds of a year behind compared to pre-pandemic performance of similar peers, they are on track to make up the lost ground within the next two to three years—if the current pace of recovery can be sustained. (That is obviously a big “if.”)
The math results are far less impressive, however. The initial achievement decline in this subject was much larger than in ELA, and the recovery over the past year has been far more muted. Overall, students remain between one-half and one whole year behind in math, corresponding to a proficiency rate that is between 10 to 15 percentage points lower than prior to the pandemic in most tested grades.
In addition to contrasting the exam scores of current students to earlier cohorts, the new report also examines one-year learning gains between spring 2021 and spring 2022 relative to comparable pre-pandemic growth. This allows me to directly quantify the amount of learning “acceleration” taking place in Ohio schools over the past year. The analysis confirms the trends found in the aggregate achievement data, showing that test scores in ELA grew substantially faster than in the years prior to the pandemic (with an important caveat, discussed further below). These gains were broad-based. Unfortunately, there was no consistent evidence that student groups who suffered the most pronounced initial declines in the first year of the pandemic—particularly Black students, economically disadvantaged students, and those attending districts that remained remote the longest—have recovered any faster than their peers. In other words, the achievement gaps that expanded early in the pandemic largely remained last year.
In math, one-year growth was only modestly larger than normal in elementary grades but was also modestly smaller than usual for most older students. Indeed, the data for the oldest students is most distressing. Overall, eighth graders showed no evidence of learning acceleration—meaning the initial learning shortfalls among these students first recorded in spring 2021 did not narrow over the subsequent year. And the test scores suggest that tenth graders may have fallen even further behind, at least in ELA. Since these students have only a few years left before graduation, prioritizing their academic recovery should be at the very top of the agenda for Ohio educational leaders and public officials.
Frustratingly, the assessment results cannot speak to which strategies and investments that districts have pursued over the past year are working and which should be ditched, because there is no consistent data collection being done on these efforts, aside from tracking district spending of federal Covid aid. (Such limited tracking is not particularly useful since money is and has always been fungible.) However, the spring assessments do offer one important—and concerning—hint.
Specifically, most third-grade students take the same ELA exam twice during the academic year, in both the fall and the spring. And although spring 2022 third-grade reading scores showed significant improvement from spring 2021, the exams also revealed no evidence that these students had learned more during the academic year compared to pre-pandemic cohorts. In fact, the fall-to-spring growth rate among third graders last year was approximately 15 percent lower than typical before the pandemic, perhaps due to the disruptions caused by the Omicron wave in January or the widespread bus driver shortages and transportation woes. This suggests that much of the observed gains recorded in the spring were due to expanded programming and services from summer 2021, not improved instruction or tutoring services delivered during the school year.
The message from the spring’s assessments should be loud and clear: Despite some recent gains, Ohio students remain behind academically, especially in math. With Ohio districts still sitting on hundreds of millions in unspent federal aid, it is more important than ever that we understand which interventions are having the greatest impact in moving the needle on student academic recovery, and that policymakers prioritize and target their spending on students and subject that need help the most. The future of Ohio’s students—especially our oldest students—depends on it.
is Associate Professor in The Ohio State University’s Department of Political Science and (by courtesy) the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. The opinions and recommendations presented in this editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily represent policy positions or views of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, the Department of Political Science, or The Ohio State University.