Young students appeared to struggle more during the pandemic to adjust to remote learning than older students in Pittsburgh, according to test data for the 2020-2021 school year released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education on Friday.

Although there was a wide range of performance, on average, elementary schools in Pittsburgh saw more than twice the decline in the percentage of students passing state end-of-course exams than the district’s high schools. 

Typically, students in grades 3-8 and grade 11 take an exam in math, science and English language arts in the spring. In 2021, the option was given to take the test in the fall. The new data includes results from both. The state tests were canceled in 2020, so this is the first data from the state in two years.

The state urged caution in interpreting results because fewer students took the tests than in typical years and some took it at a different time of year. However, a sharper decline in scores for young students is consistent with other testing data from the district.

Although the new state data shows most Pittsburgh schools saw their scores decline, there was a wide range. At Pittsburgh Morrow K-8, for example, 6% fewer students passed their exams on average, while at Pittsburgh Dilworth 30% fewer students passed their end-of-course exams. 

The test results were the worst for elementary math students: 21% fewer students tested at grade level or above on average at the elementary schools. And the results were best for high school biology: on average 4% more students passed the state biology exam.

Ten Pittsburgh schools saw improvements on their end-of-course science tests last year. More than 85% of students at Pittsburgh Miller K-5, for example, were at grade level or above on the end-of-course science test, compared to just 35% before the pandemic. That was by far the largest gain of any school in any subject in the district.

There were a couple positive outliers in English: Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, Pittsburgh Montessori K-5 and Pittsburgh Miller K-5 all increased the percentage of students passing their state English tests. All the other district schools saw declines.

Only Brashear increased the percentage of students passing an end-of-course math test. About 34% of Brashear students who took the algebra test at Brashear passed, compared to 32% in 2019. 

Ebony Pugh, a spokesperson for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said it was “improper” to compare the test results this year to previous years due to “a variety of conditions exacerbated by the pandemic. We remain focused on accelerating learning and addressing the unfinished learning of students."

An average of about 80% of students took their tests at Pittsburgh schools. A handful of schools had more than 90% take the test and a handful had fewer than 60%. Most were somewhere in-between.

“Historically, standardized assessment results have been an important part of understanding school performance and our work to close achievement and opportunity gaps. But this year’s results are anything but standard,” said Deputy Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Sherri Smith in a press release. 

Some of the apparent trends in results are consistent with a study presented to the school board in September. Mathematica, a large data consultant, presented a study based on separate testing data that showed Pittsburgh’s elementary students suffered more learning loss during the pandemic than older students.

The Mathematica study said Pittsburgh students did about as well as other large urban districts nationally, in terms of how much they fell behind during the pandemic. And while older students did relatively better on their tests, they also failed more courses. Chronically absent students who tended to come from lower-income backgrounds were especially likely to fail last year.

Some advocates said the state tests were a waste of time. “It’s clear that standardized tests administered during the pandemic were simply an exercise in compliance, and they offer a very incomplete measure of student performance during the pandemic,” said Rich Askey, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents teachers and staff across the state. “That’s likely why so many parents didn’t want their children to take them last year.”

This story was updated to reflect a response from the district after publication. The story was also updated to reflect how many Pittsburgh students took their exams based on new data uncovered.

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...