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Nebraska students lost ground in math, reading during pandemic, but not as much as peers

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Results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress released Monday show that Nebraska students slid backward in math and reading proficiency during the pandemic, but not as much as students across the nation.

Matt Blomstedt, who has served as Nebraska's education commissioner since 2014, announced Friday that he is retiring from the position.

Like their peers across the nation, Nebraska students slid backward in math and reading proficiency during the pandemic, according to results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress released Monday.

Nebraska’s eighth grade math score was the lowest since 2000. Its fourth grade math score was the lowest since 2011.

And in reading, fourth and eighth grade scores were the lowest since 2002.

But the test results, known as the Nation’s Report Card, contain some positive takeaways.

First, Nebraska students did better than the nation.

Nebraska’s average math score was 242 for fourth grade, 7 points higher than the national average. In eighth grade, Nebraska averaged 279, 6 points higher than the nation.

In reading, Nebraska’s average score was 219 for fourth grade, 3 points higher than the national average. In eighth grade, both Nebraska and the nation had an average score of 259.

Second, Nebraska kids slid less than their peers across the nation during the past three years.

Nebraska kids dropped 2 points in fourth grade math and 6 points in eighth grade math on a 500-point scale. Nationally, math scores dropped 5 and 8 points, respectively.

A 2-point slide is small enough that officials at NAEP don’t consider it statistically significant. As a result, despite the drop, Nebraska was designated as one of nine states that recorded no significant score change in fourth grade math. No state had its score go up.

Nationally, the declines in math scores were the largest since NAEP assessments began in 1990.

Miguel Cardona, the U.S. secretary of education, said at a press briefing on Friday that the nation’s scores are “unacceptable,” and the low results weren’t just because of the pandemic.

“The data prior to the pandemic did not reflect an education system that was on the right track. The pandemic simply made that worse,” Cardona said. “It took poor performance and dropped it down even further.”

In reading, the results were mixed for Nebraska. Nebraska fourth graders fell 3 points, same as their peers nationally. Eighth graders in Nebraska fell 5 points, compared to 3 points nationally.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt said it’s reasonable to think that getting Nebraska kids back into classrooms during the pandemic kept scores from falling further.

“It demonstrates at least what my gut told me: in-school was going to be a better result for students than not being in school,” Blomstedt said.

In August 2020, Nebraska reopened most of its schools after the spring quarter shutdown despite the advice of some medical experts, protests from teachers unions and worries it could ignite COVID-19 outbreaks.

Some kids learned remotely, but it proved a challenge for many kids, with higher course failure rates than students attending in person.

Last school year, kids were back in person, though COVID proved disruptive again until it mostly subsided late in the year.

Because Nebraska got its kids back in school, educators could turn their attention to addressing learning loss while some of the nation’s school districts were still in remote learning.

The NAEP test is used to track the nation’s academic progress over the long haul.

It is administered in various academic subjects periodically to a representative sample of the nation’s students. Students took the tests between January and March 2022.

The last time students were tested was in 2019, prior to the pandemic.

The results provide the most reliable and complete picture yet of the impact of COVID-19 disruptions on the nation.

Blomstedt said the bigger eighth grade drops in Nebraska may reflect the challenge teachers faced in engaging middle schoolers during the pandemic.

The NAEP scores revealed that certain student demographic subgroups in Nebraska suffered more than others, especially English language learners.

In Nebraska, fourth grade English learner students dropped 10 points in math and 16 points in reading. Nationally, that group of students slid only 1 to 4 points.

Eighth grade English learner students in Nebraska dropped 3 points in math and 13 points in reading. Across the U.S., English learner students in the same grade lost only 2 to 4 points.

“The NAEP results reflect the reality in classrooms across our nation in terms of the students, families and communities most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Bridget Blevins, spokeswoman for the Omaha Public Schools.

The district, which has nearly 19,000 students receiving English learner services, anticipated the need for academic recovery, Blevins said.

Most demographic groups in the state declined by similar amounts. But one subgroup — Asian/Pacific Islander fourth grade students — increased their math score by 7 points.

In some cases, the gaps between demographic groups narrowed, but that didn’t mean that historically low-performing students had scored better.

For instance, in eighth grade reading, the gap narrowed between students who were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and those who were not.

Both subgroups dropped, but the subsidized lunch students didn’t drop as much. As a result, their average scores were 20 points lower, instead of 25 points.

“I think what it means is sometimes when you don’t have as far to fall, the learning loss was less,” Blomstedt said. “Also, when you try to grow back out of that, the work’s harder with that group.”

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if, as schools get back to normal, the gap grows again as students not impacted by poverty recover faster.

Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said people shouldn’t put too much emphasis on the NAEP scores.

“(Students) are coming to the other side of a very different learning environment during a pandemic,” Benson said. “I look at these scores and it’s just kind of a snapshot of what the kids are doing. Sometimes it doesn’t really tell what they are capable of doing. It’s just one assessment.”

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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