Newark students suffered extensive learning loss last school year, according to spring 2021 test scores that show for the first time how profoundly the pandemic disrupted students’ academic progress.
Just 9% of students in grades 2-8 met state expectations in math based on the results of end-of-year tests taken this spring, according to Newark Public Schools data Chalkbeat obtained through a public records request. Only 11% of students met expectations in reading.
The grim results are only estimates of how students would have fared on New Jersey’s state exams had they not been canceled this spring. Also, the tests measure student performance against pre-pandemic benchmarks, which do not account for the extreme challenges Newark students faced after COVID shuttered school buildings and shattered any sense of normalcy for more than a year.
Still, the standardized tests that thousands of Newark students took this spring offer the most detailed look yet at the academic damage wrought by the pandemic. While alarming, the test scores parallel national and statewide data that show the past year’s social and educational disruptions knocked most students off course, with Black, Hispanic, and low-income students weathering the biggest blow.
The data come from the MAP Growth assessments created by the nonprofit testmaker NWEA. Newark students took the tests at the beginning, middle, and end of last school year. Schools across the country used the MAP tests or similar assessments to measure students’ progress because this year’s state exams were cancelled.
Students’ MAP scores can predict how well they would have performed on the state tests. According to NWEA’s estimates, only 10% of Newark third graders would have met or exceeded expectations on the state math exams this spring, compared with 35% of Newark third graders who met that benchmark in 2019. In reading, just 12% of eighth graders would have met state expectations this year, compared with 44% who hit that target in 2019.
“There’s no doubt that these data are a call to action,” said Martin West, an education professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who reviewed some of Newark’s test scores at Chalkbeat’s request. “What really matters is what happens next.”
In line with national trends, Newark students started last school year academically behind and made less progress than would be expected in a typical year, the data show.
For example, fifth graders fell from the 15th to the 4th percentile in math over the course of the school year, landing them near the very bottom of the pack nationally. In reading, they dropped from the 11th to the 2nd percentile.
The rankings are based on prior year data, which gives a sense of how Newark students’ performance last school year compared to how other students across the country performed in a typical year. However, the rankings don’t show whether Newark students fared any better or worse than their national peers during the pandemic.
The findings confirmed what Linda Williams witnessed in her own home. The mother of three children who attend Avon Avenue School, she watched their grades plunge and progress stall as remote learning dragged on for 13 months.
“As far as education goes,” she said, “I think they lost a year.”
West, who is also a researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research, urged caution when interpreting the MAP scores.
First, the results might underestimate the pandemic’s academic impact because some of the most disadvantaged students are likely to have missed the tests. Also, there is no way to compare Newark students’ growth last school year to prior years because they did not previously take the MAP tests. Instead, their performance must be measured against national averages from before the pandemic.
For those reasons, the data does not show whether Newark did any better or worse than other districts in navigating the pandemic, West said. What’s clear is that Newark students dealt with more hardships than their more advantaged peers — including family illness, job losses, and housing insecurity — and were shut out of classrooms longer.
“They experienced the worst of both worlds,” West said, “so it’s hardly a surprise that the data from this year suggests substantially slowed academic progress.”
Experts call pandemic learning loss a national crisis. The federal government has allocated billions of dollars to help students recover, and some school districts have announced plans to increase learning time, offer intensive tutoring, and hire extra teachers.
Newark is expecting more than $282 million in federal pandemic-relief funds, yet officials have said little about their academic recovery plans. And while documents show that district officials are well aware of students’ severe learning loss, they have not publicly shared or discussed the data.
A district spokesperson did not answer questions about the district’s plans to tackle learning loss. The school board president did not respond to an email seeking her reaction to the test scores.
Newark and other school districts should be transparent about the pandemic’s academic fallout, said Steven LoCascio, executive director of the educational leadership program at Kean University’s College of Education.
“No one’s at fault here — this is a worldwide, unprecedented scenario we’re facing,” he said. “However, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the challenges.”
LoCascio and other experts say recovery efforts should start by helping students process the social and emotional upheaval they endured over the past year. “We can’t just jump back into business as usual,” he said.
Wilhelmina Holder, a Newark education advocate, said that helping families get back on their feet will also benefit students. The district could use some of its federal aid to hire staffers to assist families with housing, employment, and health issues, she said. The district could also recruit college students to tutor Newark youth and hire additional classroom aides, she added.
Holder predicted that the academic recovery will be long and arduous.
“It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “But if we don’t get these kids caught up and excelling, their options in life are going to be limited.”