Reynolds credits early school reopening for small drop in students’ scores, but data unclear

By: - October 24, 2022 6:28 pm

A teacher explains test results to a student during a class. (Photo by Drazen Zigic/iStock-Getty Images Plus)

Gov. Kim Reynolds said Iowa’s speed in returning students to classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic led to smaller reductions in student performance than in many other states.

But analysts said data from the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress assessments show mixed results on the effects of different school reopening timelines.

Iowa students’ scores in 4th-grade mathematics and reading, as well as 8th-grade reading, did not see a significant change since the 2019 national exams, according to the latest NAEP data. The state’s 8th-grade math score declined. But those ratings showed “no significant change” and are better results than many states saw during the same period.

No states improved their scores. Only schools run by the U.S. Department of Defense reported an increase in 8th-grade reading scores, but all participating states and the jurisdictions reported either “no change” or a decrease in scores across grades and subjects. Utah and the Department of Defense were the only two entities to avoid a significant decrease in 8th-grade math scores.

The results show the profound toll on student learning during the pandemic, as the size and scope of the declines are the largest ever in mathematics,” Peggy Carr, commissioner of the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, said in a news release on the data. “The results also underscore the importance of instruction and the role of schools in both students’ academic growth and their overall wellbeing.”

Iowa does not lead the pack in the recent NAEP results. Iowa’s ranked best at 7th in 4th-grade math, followed by 15th in 4th-grade reading and 8th-grade math, and 20th in 8th-grade reading.

While Reynolds said there’s room for the state to improve, she attributed Iowa’s relative stability in scores to the state’s quick turnaround returning students to in-person learning.

“Iowa was the first state in the nation to reopen its schools during the pandemic, bringing students back to the classroom for in-person learning in August 2020 – not to make headlines or for political gain, but because we believed it was the best thing to do for our children’s education, stability, and overall well-being,” Reynolds said in a statement. “Now, the first pandemic-era math and reading results reported today by the National Assessment of Educational Progress prove we did the right thing.”

Analysis by Chalkbeat, an education non-profit news organization, did not find consistent evidence that states which offered more in-person learning during the pandemic saw smaller declines in NAEP scores.

Comparing the scores with in-person learning percentages from the COVID-19 School Data Hub, Chalkbeat found states which fully returned to the classroom for a longer period saw a smaller decrease in 4th grade-math scores. The data also found a modest connection in 8th-grade math and 4th-grade reading scores, but no correlation between the factors in 8th-grade reading.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the test results show the need for more investment in and attention to education. He called for educators to use American Rescue Plan funding to help address learning loss from the pandemic. Iowa used ARP funds to create the $45.6 million Teacher and Paraeducator Registered Apprenticeship Pilot Grant Program, which the governor said may lead to the certification of 500 new teachers and 500 new paraeducators.

“Let’s also be very clear: the data prior to the pandemic did not reflect an education system that was on the right track,” Cardona said in a speech on the new scores. “The pandemic simply made that worse.  It took poor performance – and dropped it down even further. As an educator and as a parent — that’s heartbreaking and horrible.  It’s an urgent call to action.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.