As the COVID-19 pandemic raged through Greater Memphis, Memphis-Shelby County Schools offered testing for employees and students at the Board of Education. (Photo: SCS Twitter)

by Samantha West —

Memphis-Shelby County Schools showed some of the country’s sharpest declines in math and reading scores on the test known as the “nation’s report card.”

Results from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, illustrate the pandemic’s devastating effect on learning in Tennessee’s largest school district, where most students are Black and come from low-income families who were hit hardest by the pandemic, and where waves of COVID infections led to prolonged stretches of remote learning.

While district school buildings reopened in the spring of 2021, most students did not return to classrooms until last school year — only to be hit by new disruptions and safety protocols as the delta and omicron variants struck.

MSCS’ most notable declines were in math. The average score for fourth-graders decreased by 12 points from 2019 (on a 500-point scale); for eighth graders, scores dropped by 14 points, the greatest decline among the 26 big-city districts that participated in a special urban assessment program using the NAEP test.

Reading scores also took a hit, with fourth graders dropping 8 points on average and eighth graders falling 6 points from 2019.

This was the first NAEP test conducted since before the pandemic shut down classrooms in March 2020.


What is NAEP?

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, pronounced nape) is a test administered by an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. It’s given periodically to a representative subset of American students in math and reading in grades four and eight. Scores are broken down by state and for a select handful of cities, too.

The latest results are based on tests given between January and March 2022. The previous test was given in 2019, before the pandemic.

Unlike state exams or tests students might take for a regular class, NAEP is low stakes for individual students, teachers, and schools. In other words, results aren’t used to, say, evaluate teachers or grade students.

Scores from a separate NAEP exam that has been given to 9-year-olds for many decades were previously released in September.

NAEP Scale Scores Black _ Economically Disadvantaged Across Time


 

Memphis-Shelby County Schools Chief Financial Officer Tutonial “Toni” Williams at the MSCS Board meeting, where she was named interim superintendent. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

MSCS interim Superintendent Toni Williams said the district’s students are resilient and will be able to bounce back.

“MSCS has used federal stimulus dollars to make key investments,” she said. “Because of such efforts, we are already seeing evidence that the pandemic downturn is reversing.”

Memphis’ results largely mirror the state and nation. Despite Tennessee’s big bet that tutoring and summer learning programs would help students rebound quicker from the pandemic, the state’s scores slid to their lowest level in math and reading since 2011. That was before the outsize gain on the 2013 exam earned Tennessee the title of the nation’s fastest improving state.

Nationally, students in fourth and eighth grade saw unprecedented declines in math and substantial dips in reading achievement between 2019 and 2022. The declines were broad-based — affecting students in virtually every state and every region of the country.

Other research has already shown that the pandemic derailed academic progress during that period. But the results from the closely watched NAEP provide the most detailed and authoritative accounting yet, with data coming from a representative set of students nationwide and allowing for comparisons across states and some cities.

This is the third time MSCS has participated in the voluntary assessment program for urban districts, called the Trial Urban District Assessment. The first time, in 2017, the district’s students ranked in the bottom third of the nation.

They remain there this year, with Memphis-Shelby County Schools posting its lowest NAEP results ever. MSCS was the only TUDA district in the nation to be among the top-five decliners on every test. In both subjects and grade levels covered by the assessment, MSCS scores consistently fell below national and large-city averages.

Here’s how the district’s average scores compared:

  • Fourth-grade math: MSCS’ average score was 216, far below the national average of 235 and the large-city average of 227.
  • Fourth-grade reading: MSCS’ average score was 197, while the national average was 216, and the large-city average was 209.
  • Eighth-grade math: MSCS’ average was 251, notably lower than the national average of 273 and the big-city average of 266.
  • Eighth-grade reading: MSCS’ average was 242. The national average was 259 and the large-city average was 255.

The district’s NAEP scores underscored how its most vulnerable student groups — such as students of color and children from low-income families — continue to lag behind their peers academically, especially after their communities were disproportionately affected by COVID.

In fourth-grade math, for example, the average score dropped by 12 points among MSCS’ Black students and 6 points among Hispanic students. The average score for white students, meanwhile, increased by 1 point.

In fourth grade reading, the average score for students eligible for the National School Lunch Program, a federal measure of poverty, plummeted by 8 points, while students who were not eligible saw a drop of only 3 points.

MSCS’ performance on the national assessment contrasts with the rosier picture painted by the district’s gains on state standardized tests, which tend to be more closely aligned with state academic standards and curriculum. On those tests, the district’s overall proficiency rate rose about 6 percentage points in a near return to pre-pandemic levels.

District officials trumpeted the results on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program as evidence that MSCS is “trending up.” But they also acknowledged they had a lot of work to do, with fewer than a quarter of MSCS students meeting grade level expectations in each subject.

In a briefing for reporters on Friday, MSCS administrators said they believe Tennessee’s largest school system is still trending up. While TCAP tests were administered in April and May, administrators said NAEP assessments occurred in January, at the height of omicron.

“This is a snapshot of how student wellbeing impacted academics during a time of heightened uncertainty,” said Angela Whitelaw, deputy superintendent of schools and academic support. “Our students, they epitomize grit and grind. … Our TCAP shows already show our students’ resilience and, with more time, they will continue trending up and learning recovery.”

As they did when TCAP results were released, administrators touted the district’s investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID relief aid in a variety of academic strategies, such as increasing access to before- and after-school tutoring, adding teachers assistants to lower the student-to-adult ratio in K-2 classrooms, adding an academic intervention period to the school day to help students catch up, and holding data nights to keep parents better informed about their child’s academic progress.

MSCS officials also emphasized that standardized assessments are only one factor in how they measure student success and needs.

MSCS board Chair Althea Greene. (Photos: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

Board Chair Althea Greene said she’s proud of the MSCS’ growth on TCAP and on Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS, where the district received the state’s highest ranking for academic growth.

“I don’t want the momentum for Memphis-Shelby County Schools to be drowned out by the NAEP story,” Greene said. “Our administrators and teachers are working hard. I want us to be proud of our district and our progress.”

(Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at [email protected])