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Test scores for South Florida students plummeted during the pandemic, as schools struggled to simultaneously educate students learning on campus and at home.
The results of the Florida Standards Assessment, released Thursday, show especially dramatic declines in math, with the proficiency rates for third to eighth graders falling in Broward County from 63% in 2019 to 45% this year. That 18-point plunge is the second-largest drop in the state, just below a 19-point drop in Gadsten County, in the Panhandle.
There is no comparable data for 2020 because the state canceled standardized after schools closed due to COVID-19.
Other South Florida counties didn’t fare much better, with math passing rates falling from 64% to 49% in Palm Beach County and from 63% to 48% in Miami-Dade.
“We can now definitively add student achievement as a casualty of COVID-19,” Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade Schools, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
The drops were greater than the state as a whole, as math scores statewide fell 10 points from 61% passing to 51%.
South Florida counties also dropped in language arts tests for grades 3 to 10, although the declines were less dramatic.
Passing rates in language arts fell from 58% two years ago to 52% in Broward, 57% to 53% in Palm Beach County and 58% to 54% in Miami-Dade.
Statewide scores in language arts fell from a passing rate of 55% to 52%.
“We have a lot of catching up to do, but we are committed to the academic, social and emotional health of all students,” Palm Beach County Superintendent Michael Burke said in a statement. “The District will continue to leverage federal educational support funds to address learning loss as a result of COVID-19 while accelerating student learning to close pre-existing achievement gaps.”
School officials were anticipating poor results, as they’d talked for a year about a COVID slide. Many students didn’t have the discipline or the supervision needed to learn at home from a computer, they said. Teachers had to navigate classes with some students in their rooms and some at home.
The number of F grades more than doubled from the previous year. Practice tests showed declines, and student absences were up.
“We’re concerned about the achievement results released today,” outgoing Superintendent Robert Runcie said in a statement. “The decrease in performance on the assessments correlates with the very low rate of return by students for in-school, face-to-face instruction last school year. The return of students for brick-and-mortar instruction this coming school year is imperative to ensure students can work with teachers and receive supplemental supports.”
In normal years, the test scores are used to determine whether schools get good grades, teachers get good evaluations, third graders move up to fourth grade and high school students graduate. But the state suspended most of those rules this year due to the pandemic. Schools will get graded only if they want to, and students and teachers won’t be penalized for poor performance.
“Students were aware there were no consequences with the assessment, and I think that probably had a contributing factor,” Carvalho said.
The results showed that, on average, districts with higher rates of in-person instruction fared better than those where most students learned at home, the state Department of Education wrote in a blog post.
Broward had the lowest proportion of students attending in-person classes in the state, at 40%. Miami-Dade, at 50%, and Palm Beach County, at 59%, were also below the state average of 69% in-person attendance.
The state is requiring districts to discontinue remote learning, other than small virtual programs that existed prior to the pandemic.
Carvalho said the huge drops in math, compared to the more modest declines in language arts, suggest math may be a subject ill-suited for at-home learning.
“Parents are much more at ease helping their children in history or civics or reading than they are at mathematics,” he said. “They don’t have the same level of comfort with math.”
The other problem, he said, is that math is a subject where one concept builds on another, and it’s harder for students who get behind to catch up.
Districts have been taking steps to help students recover, including academic camps during Winter Break and Spring Break and expanded summer school. Carvalho said his district will also be extending the school day for some of the most academically fragile students.
Broward School Board member Nora Rupert said she’s optimistic student performance will improve.
“Our teachers and staff are professionals, and I know once school is open in August, these students will be learning and interacting again,” she said.