ILEARN results show pandemic had an impact

The Indiana Department of Education released 2021 ILEARN assessment results Wednesday for students in grades 3-to-8. I don’t want to read too much into standardized test scores, especially during a pandemic, but here are some thoughts.

COVID-19 clearly impacted learning, as everyone expected it would. Between 2019 and 2021, the share of students who scored proficient on the tests declined by about 8 percentage points in English/language arts and by about 11 percentage points in math. The share of students who were proficient in both English/language arts and math declined from 37.1% to 28.6%. (The test wasn’t given in 2020).

This isn’t entirely an apples-to-apples situation, and the department cautioned against comparing 2019 and 2021 scores. For one thing, the 2019 scores included only students who were enrolled at the same school for 162 days, while the 2021 scores apparently included all students who were tested. State officials said they’re thinking of 2021 as a “new baseline” for measuring future improvement.

But it’s not surprising that test scores, overall, were lower in 2021. Schools moved online for the last two months of the 2019-20 school year, when the pandemic began. While circumstances varied by school district, many students were fully or partially online in 2020-21.

The impact was probably worse for students who could least afford to lose out on learning. According to state officials, the academic impact of the pandemic on test-score improvement was “significant” for all groups of students in math. In English/language arts, the impact was significant for Black, Asian and Hispanic students, students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals and English language learners. Those groups may have had less reliable internet access and less support from parents who were working from home.

So-called proficiency gaps – between white and Black students, between free-lunch and paid-lunch students, between English learners and native English speakers, between regular education and special education students – stayed about what they were in 2019. The gaps were big then and are big now.

Recovering from the pandemic will take time and effort. According to the department, it will take over a year – maybe as much as three to five years – for students to recover from significant academic impact from the pandemic. And that’s with targeted interventions, like individual or small-group instruction for students who need help.

“It will need to be intentional. It will need to be individualized,” said Charity Flores, chief academic officer for the education department, who presented the results to the State Board of Education. “Students are going to be coming into the classroom with very different levels of understanding.”

On the plus side, officials said, funding via the federal American Recovery Plan and other federal and state sources can help schools do more for students.

Language matters. Give credit to Indiana Department of Education staff for mostly avoiding the contested term “learning loss” to refer to what happened during the pandemic. Students didn’t necessarily “lose” what they had already learned, even if they lost out on opportunities to learn more.

Also, I’m trying to avoid saying students passed or failed ILEARN. Instead, the state identifies students as being below, approaching, at or above “proficiency” on the assessment. Taking a cue from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, I’d argue there’s a different standard for passing – a basic score on NAEP – and proficiency.

We will learn more eventually. There are interesting and important questions still to be answered: for example, how do test scores correlate with student attendance during the pandemic and with whether students attended in-person or online? Was virtual schooling more effective for certain groups of students than others? What about hybrid models that combined virtual and in-person classes?

The state education department is collecting data on those parameters, and it has contracted with the New Hampshire-based Center on Assessment and its senior associate, Damian Betebenner, to analyze them. Expect a presentation to the State Board of Education and a detailed report later this year.

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