By AARON SANDERFORD
LINCOLN — The academic hole facing Nebraska’s students, teachers, parents and policymakers became clearer Wednesday with the release of state K-12 test scores from 2021-22.
Student proficiency scores in math and language arts were mixed, amid a national dip in student performance on tests taken during the coronavirus pandemic.
Last year, proficiency scores in math for third graders through eighth graders increased from 46% to 47%, while language arts scores fell from 48% to 46%, according to Nebraska Department of Education statistics. Two-thirds — 66% — passed the state’s new science test.
Math and language arts scores reoriented lower starting in 2017, when the state started testing the bulk of its students on a more rigorous set of college- and career-based standards. Under this new system, statewide proficiency scores in language arts and math were slightly above 50% pre-pandemic.
This year’s test found 46% of the state’s high school juniors proficient in language arts, 44% in math and 48% in science.
Test scores became an issue during State Board of Education races this fall. On Wednesday, senators from both parties said the Legislature is prepared to help fight learning loss.
State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, the chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said lawmakers, policymakers and schools need to focus on fighting absenteeism, school staffing, early childhood education, empowering teachers and reengaging parents in student learning.
“The test score results were really exactly what we expected,” Walz said. “We expected to see a dip. I think we were really fortunate that we were able to get our kids back in school sooner than others.”
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, who has pushed for education accountability and school choice, applauded the department for maintaining how it evaluates student learning. She wants the Legislature to focus on literacy for young students, teacher training and special education.
“You can’t improve what you can’t see,” Linehan said. “If you don’t know what the problem is, you can’t fix it.”
Retiring Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said the scores show that students had less of a learning loss than those in other states. He and the state senators thanked Nebraska teachers for their work during difficult times.
Dig into the scores
To see more of Nebraska’s 2021-22 test scores, click here.
“Nebraska public schools, while impacted by the pandemic, remained strong,” he said. “Our statewide assessments are showing similar trends, and now is the time for schools to focus supports on the areas that have the most need.”
Blomstedt and representatives of the Nebraska State Education Association said similar things in late October about the state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
On NAEP, no state scored higher than Nebraska in fourth-grade math, and just one state had higher scores in eighth-grade math. Nebraska was fourth in fourth-grade reading and eighth in eighth-grade reading.
However, state tests show the pandemic appears to have exacerbated Nebraska’s persistent challenges in closing achievement gaps between students of plenty and students living in poverty.
The students who lost the most ground were students whose families suffered the most during the pandemic, including students learning English and students of color.
State test scores showed less than 10% of English language learners scored proficient in math or language arts. Of students with free or reduced-priced lunch, a measure of poverty, less than a third scored proficient in either subject. Students with disabilities also scored lower during the pandemic.
Blomstedt highlighted the importance of addressing a pandemic-fueled increase in the number of students who were chronically absen. That has remained about double what it was before the pandemic, with 77,000 students missing 10% or more of their time in school in 2021-22.
Wednesday’s results include the Nebraska Student-Centered Assessment System, or NSCAS, and the Accountability for a Quality Education System Today and Tomorrow, or AQuESTT.
NSCAS tests learning in core subject areas. Roughly 99% of students typically take it, although that level dipped to about 95% in 2020-21. AQuESTT scores schools to prioritize financial support for the schools that need it most.
Blomstedt said Nebraska schools will focus on increased instructional time to catch students up, he said, but it may require additional investment. He said the state needs to target investments to sustain improvement in academic growth, including special education, reading and encouraging attendance.
Susanne Cramer, executive director for academic recovery and school improvement at the Omaha Public Schools, said in a statement that tests are “a single point of data” and that more context is needed.
Schools are more focused on helping students improve, testing them for growth from what they know when they arrive to what they know at different points throughout the year, she said.
She highlighted OPS gains in elementary school scores and expressed concern about dips between sixth and eighth grade.
The district serves the state’s largest number of students in poverty.
She said in a recorded statement that administrators and teachers are focused on boosting academic support, including tutoring and broader use of summer school.
“The additional investment in our students is really an investment in their future,” she said. “That’s how we respond to this data. That’s how we respond to all data.”