The recently published ACT Aspire exam results confirmed what everyone knew was true: The past year-and-a-half has been rough on kids academically.

Students in Arkansas took the end-of-the-year assessments last spring after skipping 2020, and the numbers fell almost across the board. Dr. Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy, found that the percentage of students scoring “ready” or “exceeds ready” fell 12% in math, from 48% in 2019 to 36% in 2021. Fifth-graders fell almost 15 points, from 49.17% to 34.6%.

“Ready” is the minimum benchmark we want kids to meet. The drops were not as bad in the other core subjects across grade levels, but they were significant: in English, from 70% to 65%; in reading, from 41% to 36%; in science, from 40% to 34%.

Looked at another way, McKenzie found that last year’s 10th graders scored as if they were in the middle of the seventh grade in math. Students at other grade levels and in other subjects also are behind.

None of this is surprising. Schools had to send everyone home for the last half of the spring 2020 semester and then the next year had to contend with remote education, abrupt quarantines, and other disruptions – all while confronting a disease that put particularly the adults in the school building at risk. Given all that, schools did a remarkable job.

Now the big push is to combat what education professionals call “learning loss.”

Schools have millions of federal dollars to do this, but the costs of inaction would be worse. Students who fall behind in certain subjects may never catch up, which could have lifelong implications for them.

McKenzie said what stood out about the falling test scores was how consistent they were. The things that usually matter so much in education – the district’s size, its percentage of students eligible for free or reduced meal prices, etc. – didn’t matter here. Just about everybody dropped.

But there were pockets where students scored better in 2021 than they did in 2019.

At Hillcrest Elementary, a small rural school in north Arkansas, math scores jumped 10 points, from 57% of students scoring “ready” or “exceeding” to 67%. In Jessieville near Hot Springs, reading scores at the elementary school increased from 46% to 53%, while middle school science scores rose from 39% to 47%. Cross County High School’s reading scores rose 11 points from 36% to 47%.

How did any school’s scores rise amidst all those disruptions? It’s hard to say. The numbers compare last spring’s students to the students of two years earlier – third-graders now versus third-graders then, in other words. Maybe a school just had a really great group of third-graders this year. These are all small schools, so a few students’ scores could skew the results.

Still, they might just be doing something right.

I visited those schools for a story I wrote for another publication. I wish some of the people who bash schools, and/or politicize them, could have gone with me. They would have seen Michealle Wooten, a Hillcrest Elementary 5th-6th grade math teacher, almost tear up as she talked about her students. Here’s the kind of teacher she is:

When her principal told her that her sixth-graders had the second highest scores in the state, her first question was, “Who beat us?” They would have seen how excited one of her students, Gunner Wright, was when performing an experiment seeing how many books he could stack on four rolled paper cylinders. They would have met 3rd-4th grade math teacher Kendra Cooper, who was a nurse for 15 years and now

“can’t imagine doing anything else.” They would have heard the administrators at Cross County High talk about how they were using data and teaching strategies to target their students’ weaknesses. They would have heard administrators at Jessieville talk about their students’ resiliency and adaptability – and their lack of complaining – as they and their teachers try to overcome all of these challenges.

They would have watched Jessieville fifth grade teacher Brenda MacKay and student Kylie Fryar end the day by neatly and carefully folding the American flag.

Yes, learning has been lost during the pandemic. A lot also has been gained. Either way, only some of it shows up on tests.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist who focuses on Arkansas politics, and whose work appears in 16 Arkansas publications. He is a regular contributor to Talk Business and a frequent panelist on Arkansas PBS’s public affairs show, “Arkansas Week." He publishes a blog, . Email him at . Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner .


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