Tests show COVID impact

Data from the Indiana Department of Education hint at how badly the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted student learning, especially for students of color and students from low-income families.

Students who attended school remotely last year because of the pandemic had lower scores and less improvement on standardized tests than students whose primary mode of instruction was in-person, according to a presentation at Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting.

“In really simple terms, in-person instruction really, really, really matters,” Secretary of Education Katie Jenner told the board. “What our teachers do in the classroom, face to face, really matters.”

In the same pattern we’ve seen elsewhere, the disruptions look to be worse for students who can least afford them. Black, Hispanic and Asian students were more likely than white students to attend online, largely because large, urban school districts were closed to in-person instruction for longer periods.  

Black students were about as likely to learn remotely as in-person over the school year, while white students were nearly 10 times as likely to learn in person as online. Students who qualified by family income for free school meals were more likely to be online than students who did not.

Students who primarily attended school in person fared better on the state’s spring 2021 ILEARN assessments. For example, in third-grade English/language arts, proficiency rates were 41.3% for in-person students and 26.3% for remote students. In eighth-grade math, proficiency rates were 32.3% for in-person learners and 15.1% for remote learners.

There were similar gaps in in growth percentile results, a measure of how much student test scores improved from 2019 to 2021. In a normal year, median growth percentiles would be around 50. This year, median growth percentiles In English/language arts ranged from 41 to 43 for in-person learners and from 28 to 36 for remote learners. In math, median scores ranged from 35 to 38 for in-person learners and from 14 to 23 for virtual leaners.

There are several caveats attached to these data. For one thing, mode-of-instruction data are missing for about 15% of students; more complete information could paint a different picture. For another, remote students probably wouldn’t have prepared for ILEARN as they would in a normal year.

And, of course, there’s the usual disclaimer that standardized tests are a flawed way to measure learning, especially in a pandemic. Many students experienced real trauma in the past 16 months, and there are many factors that could have affected their performance on assessments.

State board members expressed consternation that some urban school districts were closed to in-person instruction for much of 2020-21, but there were reasons for that. Cities were hit hard by the pandemic in its early months, and Black and Hispanic families were especially vulnerable. Research has found that many Black families still aren’t comfortable sending their kids back to school in person.

Most Indiana students appear to be attending in person as the 2021-22 school year gets underway, but there may be more disruptions. Some schools have already reported significant numbers of students are quarantined because of COVID-19 exposure; and one district shifted to remote learning this week.

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