2021 | Schools

MCPS students’ math proficiency, literacy plummet after year of virtual classes

Black, Hispanic, low-income students among hardest hit

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After more than a year of virtual classes, Montgomery County’s youngest students were significantly less prepared to meet math and literacy proficiency benchmarks than students in previous years.

For some demographic groups — particularly minority and low-income students, and those in special education or English language learner programs — there was a 40 percentage point decrease in the number of students meeting the standards at the end of the 2020-21 school year compared to pre-pandemic years.

The data confirm fears that many parents and education leaders have had since classes moved online in March 2020: Students — especially the youngest learners, without foundational knowledge in key subjects — were severely disadvantaged by virtual classes.

Board members and MCPS leaders said the results are “sobering,” but not surprising.

“It is clear that the pandemic has resulted in a significant learning disruption over the past 18 months,” Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said. “This is really going to require … being intentional and direct to know each learner, to know what their learning needs are and address them. That has to happen in every classroom, with every child … in this system. That’s what we owe them.”

The data were compared to the 2018-19 school year, the last full academic year prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that led leaders across the country to shutter school buildings in an effort to limit the virus’ spread.

For the first time, the MCPS community is seeing the academic consequences of those closures.

The data presented to the school board on Tuesday focused on second, fifth, eighth and 11th grades, usually considered key transition years for students.

There were nearly universal decreases in performances for each grade and demographic group, except for small increases in math performances for some Black and Hispanic 11th-graders.

The literacy data presented for the overall student population in the four grades discussed were:

• down 35.3 percentage points in second grade
• down 23.5 percentage points in fifth grade
• down 10.8 percentage points in eighth grade
• down 9.2 percentage points in 11th grade.

The decreases were more pronounced when broken out by demographic.

For Black second-grade students, for example, the drop was 38.2 percentage points. For Hispanic second-graders, it was 46.2 points, and for students eligible for free and reduced-priced meals, the decrease was 45.6 points.

The math data presented for the overall student population in the four grades discussed were:

• down 20.6 percentage points in second grade
• down 25.8 percentage points in fifth grade
• down 14.2 percentage points in eighth grade
• down 2.3 percentage points in 11th grade.

Like in literacy, Black and Hispanic students, and students with limited English proficiency or in special education programs, struggled most. In second grade, Black students dropped 24.5 percentage points and Hispanic students dropped 30.6 points.

School board members cautioned that, despite MCPS being among the slowest to reopen in a limited capacity last spring, other districts across the country are facing similar problems.

MCPS leaders said each school will develop a “school improvement plan” that will focus on collecting and analyzing student performance data throughout the year, and adjusting academic programs to better meet students’ needs.

Additional tutoring and intervention services will be offered at each school, some focusing generally on math and literacy concepts. Other programs will focus on specific content that an individual student needs to learn, and set goals and a timeline for achieving them.

Ultimately, the data show the importance of students being in the classroom with their teachers and peers, MCPS leaders said on Tuesday.

“This validates what we knew the entire time: Nothing replaces in person learning,” McKnight said.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com