by Curtis Weathers —
As we welcomed back our students, educators and their support teams last week, district TCAP test scores arrived on the public’s doorsteps as well.
As predicted, the results were, again, sobering.
But before we dive into the numbers, I want to thank our students and educators for the job they did navigating their way through these most difficult times.
Not only did they have an incredibly challenging 2020 school year, but they are returning to their school buildings and classrooms with just as much uncertainty as when they left over a month ago.
The pandemic is surging again, our political leaders continue to fight each other over vaccines and mask mandates, and our children are in the crossfire.
Our school leaders did an outstanding job, however, moving our children forward academically, socially and emotionally during one of the most disruptive periods in our nation’s history.
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray kept his promise and made the health and safety of our entire educational community (teachers, administrators, staff, and students) his number one priority during the entire school year.
Kudos to our superintendent and his leadership team!
But now, hard work lies ahead. There have been significant setbacks to our students’ academic preparations and are in serious need of repair.
So, let’s take a look at the district’s test results and see where we are.
First, thank you again, parents. SCS had a 93 percent participation rate last year. Students were required to take the exams in person and parents made sure their children showed up.
But, as predicted, scores on their TCAP exams declined across the board, with few exceptions. The school district had an overall drop in proficiency of 11 percentage points from 2019 to 2021, compared with a statewide decline of five percentage points.
The most significant subject-area decline was in mathematics.
One in 10 SCS students in grades three through 12 performed at or above grade level in math and English, compared to about one in five in 2019.
Only 6.6 percent of students in grades three through 12 performed at or above grade level in math, compared to 22.4 percent in 2019.
I’ve made the point in the past that my biggest concerns were with our younger elementary students, second and third graders in particular.
These are grade levels where children are exposed to critical foundational learning opportunities that carry lifelong implications.
Two subject areas, English and mathematics, deserve special attention, mainly third-grade English and seventh-grade math.
Each of these subjects provides critical foundational learning opportunities for our children.
For example, meeting expectations in third-grade English is a strong indicator of future academic success, and seventh-grade math is foundational to higher-level mathematics like algebra and geometry.
Kudos to the state for disaggregating and highlighting those data points in their reports. I was thrilled to see that information!
Second- and third-grade ELA scores show significant increases in students scoring at the lowest (below) level. The rate of second graders scoring below increased 68 percent.
The rate of third graders scoring below increased 47 percent. Students scoring below in second and third grades typically are those who are not able to read proficiently. This is no small matter.
This is a critical developmental stage for a child. Of course, being at grade level is essential at any age, but third grade is the crucial year when students make the leap from learning to read to reading to learn.
It is an academic hurdle that, if missed, can leave children behind, struggling through basic letter recognition and sounds.
Once children fall behind at this stage, it is very difficult to catch up, which is my primary concern.
Consider these statistics.
According to some research data, 83 percent of low-income students test below proficient in reading at the start of fourth grade, as do 55 percent of moderate-and high-income students, which means overall, about two-thirds of U.S. children test below proficient in reading.
We undoubtedly met this grim statistic last school year with our third-grade students. Only 14 percent of district third graders were proficient in reading last school year, and only 11percent of that number were African Americans.
Nationwide, and certainly here in Shelby County, Black, Latino, and Native-American students saw more significant test score declines last year than their white peers and peers of Asian descent.
Schools in high-poverty areas, of course, saw more significant declines than schools in affluent areas.
These declines are significant and represent an incredible challenge for a school system to rectify, especially with the numbers being so large.
Shelby County Schools, however, does have a plan to address this issue. They hosted summer learning academies, where about 9,000 students received extra instruction before the school year began.
Keep in mind there are approximately 113,000 students who attend Shelby County Schools. Well over 8,000 are third-grade students.
As part of its early literacy focus, the district is also adding more tutoring options and reducing the student to adult ratio in grades kindergarten through second grade.
But more needs to be done.
These test results provide the most detailed look so far at how the pandemic has slowed student learning since the first COVID cases reared their ugly heads in March of 2020.
These scores also confirm just how damaging the pandemic has been academically on historically underserved students.
But once again, I remind you, this pandemic is not over. People continue to get sick and die at an alarming rate despite their ability to get vaccinated.
Some schools in our district already are under quarantine protocols. Unfortunately, we seem to be fighting each other more so than the virus.
But stay safe Memphis. Get vaccinated so we can move forward!
(Curtis Weathers is the education columnist for The New Tri-State Defender.)