WORCESTER – The first batch of testing data since the pandemic began shows Worcester students struggled more – especially in math – this fall compared to last year, school officials revealed last week.
But it could be difficult to directly compare this year’s data to pre-pandemic times, because of the enormous disruption caused by the abrupt shift this year to remote learning, they said, as well as the newness of the testing format.
“We’re really using this data as a baseline” to track students’ progress going forward, said Christina Kuriacose, Worcester’s acting director of school and student performance, who presented the latest testing results and other data to the School Committee on Thursday night.
Still, school officials said they had concerns about some slips in performance from last year, especially in math. On the Star Assessment, for instance, a triannual district-level test given to students in kindergarten through ninth grade, the percentage of students scoring at or above the 40th percentile in math this year was down 20% from last year in fifth grade, 12% in fourth grade and 10% in sixth grade.
Only two grades saw improvement on the math Star Assessment this year based on that benchmark, eighth and ninth, which respectively saw the percentage of students scoring at or about the 40th percentile increase 2% and 6% since 2019-20.
Similarly, the percentage of students meeting the state’s benchmark on the Star math assessment also fell since last year, again especially in the middle grades, with just 17% of fifth graders – a 16% dip since 2019-20 – reaching that mark.
The drop-off from last year wasn’t as significant on the Star reading assessment, however, with the percentage of students scoring at or above the district-level benchmark ranging from a 7% slide from 2019-20 in fifth grade to a 12% increase in ninth.
“The fourth, fifth and sixth grades are a concern for us,” Superintendent Maureen Binienda said at Thursday’s meeting, adding the reasons for those students’ struggles are something “we’re looking at now,” and will possibly have an update on for the next School Committee meeting.
Kuriacose said the district is also exploring students’ difficulties in general on the math assessment. “It’s something we’ve had multiple conservations about … we’re really digging into why students look different this fall,” she said.
Unchanged from years past, however, is the distribution of those struggles, with Black and Latino students, English language learners and students with disabilities all posting average scores lower than their white peers this year. “Those gaps do persist,” Kuriacose said, “it doesn’t look dramatically different from how it looked last year.”
Another part of Thursday night’s data presentation that especially caught the eye of committee members was the latest attendance rates, especially the relatively lower rates on Fridays. The average attendance rate for Friday has been just under 89% for all grades as of Oct. 26, down from 94% for all other days.
According to school officials, that discrepancy may be a result of the check-in system on Fridays, which is the district’s autonomous learning day in its ongoing remote education model. Students are supposed to check in first thing in the morning, but some may be sleeping through it. Margaret McCarthy, a student representative on the School Committee from Burncoat High School, acknowledged she’s slept through a check-in, but still did her work for that day.
“We’re exploring different options with that,” Binienda said, adding the district is piloting other check-in systems that could allow students to take attendance later in the day.
Finally, School Committee members also had concerns about the data resulting from the twice-a-week student check-ins the district has been conducting this fall to monitor how students are faring academically, emotionally and mentally during remote learning. While a majority of younger students reported being able to focus on schoolwork, and a majority of all students said they were finding the technology easy to use, only two out of five students in seventh through 12th grade said they could focus on their work, and only one out of every three respondents in that age group felt connected to their peers and adults.
“It’s one of the big unknowns, the trauma, the impact of this,” said School Committee member Jack Foley.
Committee member Tracy O’Connell Novick encouraged the administration to find more ways for students to casually interact with each other, as they would under normal circumstances.
“That to me is one of the big things we’ve lost. How do we create those casual conversations?” she said. “I feel that should be a priority.”
Binienda said schools are already customizing their check-in data dashboards to focus supports to students, allowing them to distinguish between when a student’s struggles or academic or emotional/mental in nature, and direct them to the right resources.
Scott O’Connell can be reached at Scott.O’Connell@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottOConnellTG