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Philadelphia student scores on state reading and math exams down from pre-COVID levels

Several students sit at a gray table to take an exam using bright, yellow pencils. The classroom background is white.

A Chalkbeat analysis of the Philadelphia school district’s scores on state assessments for the 2021-22 school year illustrate the challenges students and educators face in overcoming COVID’s disruptions to learning.

Kali9 / Getty Images

Philadelphia students’ scores this year on state standardized tests dipped from pre-pandemic levels in 2019, underscoring the gap between the district’s current performance and its long-term academic targets, according to a Chalkbeat analysis. 

The decline on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA, was more pronounced in math, where approximately 16.2% of students in grades 3-8 scored proficient or better on the exams administered in the spring of 2022; in 2019, 21.6% of students scored proficient or better. In English Language Arts, 34.7% of students in those grades were proficient or better this year, down slightly from 35.7% in 2019.

Those drops highlight the pandemic’s disruptions to students and schools since early 2020; schools in Philadelphia did not fully reopen for in-person instruction until the 2021-22 school year. The scores also show how hard it will be for Philadelphia to meet the targets it set for the past school year, and for the next several years. 

In late 2020, as part of a multi-year plan, the district set a goal that by 2026, 52% of students in grades 3-8 would achieve proficiency on the state math exam. Its interim proficiency target on the math exam for the 2021-22 school year was 28.7%. The actual rate for the year was 12.5 percentage points lower. 

The district also set a goal that by 2026, 65% of students would achieve proficiency on the state ELA exam, with an interim target of 42.5% for 2021-22. The actual rate for 2021 came in 7.8 percentage points below that.

To emphasize the importance of students achieving proficiency in reading by third grade — a key benchmark for many researchers and policymakers — the district also set a specific goal for 62% of third graders to score proficient on the state exam by 2026. Just 28.2% of Philadelphia third graders scored proficient or better on the PSSA this year, compared with 32.5% in 2019. The interim target for this year’s PSSA was 39.3% proficient.

Philadelphia school officials have yet to officially release district-wide PSSA results. But the Pennsylvania Department of Education published results for individual schools across the state. Chalkbeat’s analysis of the Philadelphia district results is based on that school-level PSSA information, which suppresses proficiency data for groups in which fewer than 11 students took a particular test. 

The district declined to validate or otherwise comment on Chalkbeat’s analysis on Monday. 

Pennsylvania did not administer the PSSA in 2020 due to COVID. Although the state did give the PSSA in 2021, officials warned that student participation was relatively low due to COVID-related disruptions, and that therefore results were not truly comparable to scores from 2019 and previous years. However, those 2021 scores did show notable declines in proficiency from 2019.

To a certain extent, the scores are similar to Philadelphia’s results this year on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally administered, high-profile series of tests commonly known as NAEP. 

Philadelphia’s fourth and eighth grade reading and math scores either declined or did not significantly change on NAEP this year compared with 2019 NAEP results. The only statistically significant decline on NAEP in Philadelphia from 2019 to 2022 was in fourth grade math.  

Statewide scores on the PSSA, which Pennsylvania released Nov. 28, also reflect the struggles of the last few years.

In 2019, 60.9% of students statewide in grades 3-8 scored proficient or better on the English Language Arts test, while just 54.6% of students reached that level this year. In math, the decline was more pronounced: While 42.4% of students achieved proficiency in 2019, just 34.4% did so this year. 

Eric Hagarty, Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of education, acknowledged in a statement that scores statewide have not rebounded to pre-COVID levels. But he also said that “student performance is generally improving year-over-year” and that schools are working hard to help students recover from COVID’s effects. 

“We expect student performance will continue to improve as students and educators proceed with a more normalized, uninterrupted year of in-person learning,” Hagarty said.

Chalkbeat Philadelphia Senior Writer Dale Mezzacappa contributed to this story.     

Andrew Ujifusa is a story editor at Chalkbeat. Contact Andrew at aujifusa@chalkbeat.org.

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