Helena Public Schools saw a recovery in this year’s test scores from what’s come to be known as a “COVID learning gap.”
“I think we’ve had an unprecedented couple of years and to look at our student growth in the last year is incredibly promising that they’re back on track,” said Kaitlyn Hess, the district’s data, assessment and federal title coordinator. “The kids are going to be OK. They’re resilient, and they’re going to be OK. And all of our data this year is a testament to our teachers and staff who have put in an enormous amount of work to get our students back on track.”
A learning loss, according to the Glossary of Education Reform, is any reversal of academic progress, which usually happens when students have gaps in their education – like a break from school. During the pandemic, learning losses were exacerbated by many factors, including not being in classrooms, lack of internet access, income and location, according to Save the Children, a nonprofit organization that advocates for children’s rights.
Helena saw the impact of this learning loss in its test scores from 2019 – pre-pandemic – to 2021, Hess said.
“The kids were not in school for five days a week,” Hess said. “It’s not just important for having five days of academic instruction but it’s also important for having five days of nutrition, for five days of socializing… All of that goes into making the whole child.”
According to Hess, testing historically measured students against their peers, with the measure of success being the average score. But this meant the average shifted from year-to-year with each new group of students.
“It’s become looking at where students are with grade level standards,” Hess said. “We’ve set proficiencies for each grade level that students should be at, and we want to measure where that student is against the grade level standards.”
The standards for Helena Public Schools were determined by the state’s Office of Public Instruction, which built its standards off the national Common Core, Hess said.
According to data from the Montana OPI, Helena saw drops between the 2018-2019 academic year and the 2020-2021 academic year in both math and English proficiency. Grades 3-8 saw a 5.2% drop in English and a 13.5% drop in math.
Helena’s average ACT composite score saw a smaller dip – less than half a point – than the test scores in grades 3-8.
Testing data isn’t available from the 2019-2020 academic year.
Brian O’Leary, the communications director for Montana’s OPI, said this is because public schools were shut down in March 2020, right as the testing window began for students.
The federal government, O’Leary said, mandates a 95% participation rate in standardized tests for students in grades 3-8 and 11, which wasn’t possible while the state had school closures.
“Superintendent (Elsie) Arntzen requested many waivers from the federal government including the 95% participation rate and releasing Montana accountability for the test scores on the federal Every Student Succeeds Act,” O’Leary said in an email to the Independent Record.
These waivers applied to Helena Public Schools as well, Hess said. During this time, the Helena school district taught in a hybrid format, with students spending half their time in the classroom and half their time learning online.
But new testing data presented to the school board at its June 14 meeting showed Helena making gains this year from the lowered scores in the 2020-2021 academic year on the Smarter Balanced assessments used by the state to assess grades 3-8.
It also showed students making gains in proficiency from the beginning to the end of the 2021-2022 academic year on the iReady test, which is a computer assessment that adapts its difficulty level to the student taking it, according to its website.
“The research is saying it’s going to take two years to get out of COVID and get back on track,” Hess said. “After a year of that, we’re actually either back up to pre-COVID norms or pretty close. I think that’s actually pretty promising data to look at.”
According to Hess, Helena students in grades K-12 saw enormous increases in reading scores.
“We’re correlating that to five years of a literacy grant that we’ve had in the district,” Hess said.
This grant was extended to the whole district in the last two years, and Hess said the focus on reading is showing in the district’s test scores.
The largest increases in reading scores from the Smarter Balance assessment were 7-point increases in the percentage of fifth and seventh graders meeting standards between 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. Third and sixth grade also saw increases in the percentage of students meeting benchmarks.
The iReady assessment, which showed results for students from the beginning to the end of the year, saw the percentage of students in grades 2-8 meeting the proficiency level jump at all grades. The highest jump was in the second grade, with 26% proficient at the beginning of the year to 67% at the end of the year – a change of 41%. Kindergartners and first graders take a different reading test instead of iReady.
“We’re seeing unprecedented growth in K-5,” Hess said. “Kids came in lower in the fall than they usually do, but they’re coming out higher.”
Hess added that the district implemented a number of tools to help teachers and students with English post-COVID.
These tools, according to Hess, include putting instructional coaches on-site at elementary schools, instructional frameworks that require teachers to lay out lesson plans about what students are supposed to be learning and “What I Need” groups in elementary schools. These “WIN” groups assign students into groups and provide them specific help based on standards they’re struggling to master.
For middle school, Hess said Helena’s testing data shows what’s normal nationally – students are growing, but less than they do in elementary school. She said in middle school, social development is more of a focus.
Hess said math scores districtwide showed less improvement than reading ones.
“That’s because we need to put some concerted effort into seeing how our curriculum aligns with the standards,” Hess said. “We haven’t done that in math as much as we’ve done in reading.”
Still, the data presented to the board from Smarter Balance tests showed increases in grades 3-7 in the percentage of students who were proficient in math between the 2020-2021 school year and 2021-2022.
The math iReady tests also showed increases in the percentage of students in grades 1-8 who were proficient from the beginning to end of the school year too. The largest jump in math proficiency was seen in the first grade, with 8% meeting or exceeding proficiency at the beginning of the year to 63% at the end of the year. That’s a 55% change.
Hess said the district has been looking at where students aren’t meeting testing standards in math, and is working on supplementing its curriculum to fill those gaps. The efforts to improve math scores will involve getting a new math curriculum in the next couple of years, Hess said.
For high school students, ACT scores showed that Helena’s students were above both state and national averages for meeting benchmark – in composite score, and in the different sections of the test.
According to Hess, the ACT differs from the tests students take in elementary and middle school. While those tests show whether a student is meeting standards for their own grade, meeting the ACT benchmark means students have a 50% chance of receiving a B in a college course, and a 75% chance of receiving a C.
Following Hess’ June 14 presentation to the school board, Vice Chair Jennifer McKee said it’s good to know that Helena’s students are above the state average “when the race is run,” and students take the ACT at the high school level.
“The whole point of why we do it is to find the gaps and fill the gaps,” McKee said. She added she’s proud of the growth from the beginning to end of the year, and happy to see the growth in English since the district’s been working on that for years.
Luke Muszkiewicz, another board member, said the district is owning its data and making improvements. But he added that the educators who’ve brought students above the national average deserve a pat on the back too.
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