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Pandemic's impact on Wisconsin student learning comes into focus through NAEP results

Students at Milwaukee's Academy of Accelerated Learning work on an ice breaker activity on the first day of the 2022-23 school year.
Emily Files
Students at Milwaukee's Academy of Accelerated Learning work on an ice breaker activity on the first day of the 2022-23 school year.

This week, the country got a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic affected student learning, state-by-state.

The latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP show historic declines in math, and smaller declines in reading. The tests were administered to fourth and eighth graders in early 2022, after multiple years of pandemic disruptions.

In addition to state-by-state data, the NAEP also breaks out information for 26 urban school districts, including Milwaukee.

Troubling scores for Wisconsin eighth graders

Just one in three Wisconsin eighth graders is proficient in math, and the same goes for reading. Wisconsin’s eighth grade NAEP math score is the lowest since 1996. The reading score is the lowest since 1998.

Abigail Swetz is communications director at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and a former eighth grade teacher. She thinks the social isolation of the pandemic may have contributed to the troubling eighth grade results.

"When you think about what do middle schoolers specifically need, that peer-to peer-interaction, that degree to which you can build trust with an adult, a supportive teacherthose are so key when it comes to the middle school experience," Swetz says. "And I think the stressful world we’ve been living in the past few years has made all that harder."

The good news is that Wisconsin fourth graders didn’t experience a statistically significant decline in either math or reading.

The NAEP results show that Wisconsin still has the largest Black-white achievement gap in the country, aside from Washington D.C. For example, on the NAEP scale of 500 points, Black students are 53 points behind white students in eighth grade math.

"Our racial disparities when it comes to test scores between our Black and white students are egregious," says Swetz. "They are too wide and they have been going on for far too long, because any time is too long. And we absolutely must address that going forward."

To close those gaps, Swetz says Wisconsin needs to better fund public schools, which right now are dealing with mostly flat state support. DPI’s proposed biennial budget includes a $2.5 billion increase in funding.

Milwaukee steady in reading, declining in math

In Milwaukee, the NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, shows a mixed bag. MPS and many of the urban districts included in the NAEP held steady in fourth and eighth grade reading. That’s despite districts like MPS remaining virtual for longer periods of time.

MPS fourth grade reading fell from 14 to 12% proficient and eighth grade reading dropped from 16 to 14% proficient. Neither drop is considered statistically significant on the NAEP.

"The overall story here is that we were able to hold steady in spite of the pandemic, in spite of the disruption that affected the entire country," said MPS spokesperson Nicole Armendariz.

MPS did lose ground in math. Fourth grade math dropped from 17 to 11% proficient and eighth grade math fell from 11 to 7% proficient.

"I think the results have bright spots that we’re very pleased with," says MPS Director of Research, Assessment and Data Melanie Stewart. "But our overall performance is not where we want it to be. I think this provides some optimism, but we need to move all of our students to higher and higher levels of achievement.

MPS is among the lowest-performing of the 26 urban districts whose results are broken out by NAEP.

Brad Carl, education researcher at UW-Madison, explains how the pandemic impacted student's learning in Wisconsin.

Nationally and locally, math scores declined more than reading

Brad Carl, an education researcher at UW-Madison, has an idea about why math was more affected than reading during the pandemic. He points to research on summer learning slides.

"Generally the research shows that there’s more summer learning loss in math than reading," Carl says. "And the working hypothesis there is that a lot of kids will read a little bit over the summer. It’s less likely that they’ll do math. So I think what we see here [during the pandemic] mirrors that, in that that there are bigger declines in math than in reading."

What are the plans to catch students up, particularly in math? Stewart says MPS is buying new curriculum and materials for math classrooms. It’s also expanding a supplementary program called ST Math, which uses puzzles and games, to more schools.

At the state level, DPI’s Swetz says the department recently updated math standards for schools to follow. The standards are supposed to be more inclusive.

"So that our students see themselves as students who can do math, as mathematicians, from the youngest grades all the way through 12th grade," says Swetz. "As someone who did not see myself as a 'math person' when I was in school, I look at what we’re doing now as a different take on that, as a way to build on the strengths students all bring to the table when it comes to math and really get them to believe in themselves."

School districts also have one-time infusions of federal relief money — they’re supposed to use some of it to catch students up academically. Those dollars expire in two years.

Editor's note: MPS is a financial contributor to WUWM.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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