While we are proud that all nine of our schools have been open for in-person instruction since the start of the school year, and that more than two-thirds of our families have opted in, we remain concerned about the extent of the learning loss our students may have suffered as a consequence of the Spring 2020 shutdown. To identify and address where our students are, external assessments are essential.
This is a justice issue for us. Our students come from communities hit hardest by the pandemic and its economic impact; to lower our expectations for them would add more harm, and while much has changed in the last year, the standards that will help our students flourish long after the pandemic remain the same. Because we are a lean network, with little government funding, neither our budget nor our students can afford for our interventions to be off-target; we have to have a clear sense of where to aim our efforts.
In a typical year, we rely on the New York State Test to help us benchmark our students’ progress against high performing charter networks, statewide averages, and top performing public school districts. This year, given New York’s relentless effort to bury its head in the sand—first seeking to waive all testing and then watering the tests down to be worse than useless—we knew that the state test would not give us what we needed. Therefore, like so many other charter networks and Catholic schools around the country, we have adopted the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, beginning in January, 2021, and we have already begun to use the data to inform our plans for student remediation and support.
While there is still much to learn about how students are faring nationwide and in our own communities, we are heartened to see definitive signs of progress in our students’ midyear results. Their growth validates the hard work of our school communities to open in person from Day 1 this year, and the data refine our understanding of where to aim our efforts in coming months and years.
Our students in New York City met or exceeded the pre-pandemic national average for reading in every grade level.
Moreover, thanks to NWEA’s own analysis, we find that Partnership students continue to achieve at far higher levels than schools serving similar numbers of low-income students. Our students outperform the pre-pandemic reading achievement levels of these schools by between 10 and 19 percentage points, depending on the grade-level.
Like students nationwide, our students’ midyear math growth lags pre-pandemic averages. Nationally, MAP math scores dropped between 5 and 10 percentile points across all grades between 2019 and 2020. Our kindergarten, seventh, and eighth grade math results, however, did beat national averages.
Again, when compared to schools serving similar numbers of low-income students in this study, we outperform pre-pandemic averages in four out of the six testing grades. In seventh and eighth grade, it is by a whopping 15 and 19 percentage points, respectively.
Note that the NWEA study we’ve referenced is based on a subset of schools who completed high rates of testing this fall, likely meaning the data trends reflect those of more competitive, higher-achieving schools. Still, this snapshot of math achievement is a useful call-to-action and reminder that we must redouble our strategic math remediation, without supplanting core daily curriculum, to ensure that we recapture the necessary fluency that may have been lost in the spring. And it is an invitation to continue the work on our math curricula that we began before COVID; our seventh and eighth grade classrooms switched to Saxon Math last year, and we believe the impact of that systemic change is among the key drivers of our students’ results in those grades.
Similar data sets, such as one analyzed by Education Week recently, point to slower rates of growth among African-American and Latino students nationally during the first half of this school year compared to all test-takers as a whole. Partnership students are overwhelmingly African-American and Latino. That they are largely keeping pace with pre-pandemic growth rates even in communities faced with significant challenges this year is a compelling indicator that we can choose to narrow and even eliminate opportunity gaps, even in a pandemic, with the right mix of safe in-person learning, rigorous curricula, and effective teaching practices.
This data, while heartening, is not a set of laurels to rest on. Our school communities have been underserved since long before the pandemic; driving toward ever-improving curriculum and instruction will be at the heart of our work long after we all put our masks away. And we will continue to use objective testing, without test prep and with a commitment to welcoming students at any grade, to gauge our progress.