Salem students’ English, math skills fell sharply during pandemic, state tests show

Salem students’ reading, writing, math and science skills declined sharply during the pandemic, according to data from 2022 standardized tests released Thursday.

Across the Salem-Keizer School District, just one in three students who took state assessments were proficient in English, and just one in four in math, the data from the state Department of Education shows.

The tests, administered in the spring, are the first statewide academic assessment given since 2019 and reflect two years of education disrupted by the Covid pandemic, with nearly all local students attending school entirely online for over a year.

Students across Oregon scored lower on assessments than before the pandemic, but the data shows Salem students’ progress plummeted far more than state averages.

Students take the Smarter Balanced tests in language arts and math each year in third through eighth grade, and again as high school juniors. Science is tested in fifth, eighth and 11th grade.

Districtwide, 33.5% of the roughly 20,000 students tested reached a proficient score in English and language arts, compared to 43.6% in 2019. That test measures students’ ability to read and analyze text, write, revise, cite evidence and analyze sources of information, according to the assessment blueprint.

Math scores similarly plummeted, with just 21% of students proficient in the spring, versus 33.1% in 2019. In science, 24.1% of students were proficient, versus 32.6% pre-pandemic.

Statewide, 43.6% of Oregon students tested in 2022 were proficient in English and language arts, down from 53.4% in 2019. In math, 30.4% tested proficient and in science, 29.5%. Those numbers are down from 39.4% of students proficient in math and 36.9% in science pre-pandemic.

“Because Salem-Keizer students have not completed state assessments in reading, math, or science since the 2018-19 school year, we are not drawing conclusions or making comparisons to past years,” said Suzanne West, Salem-Keizer’s director of strategic initiatives, in a district statement. “In addition to these results, we will continue to use internal benchmarks and assessments to inform instruction. This provides educators a chance to intervene early if a student is struggling. So far, these internal assessment opportunities have shown much growth in student outcomes.”

West did not immediately respond to questions from Salem Reporter Thursday about why the district’s scores declined more than state averages or what the district’s internal measures of student progress are showing.

The standardized tests are one metric both state and local education officials use to monitor student progress and local school performance. State officials also track measures like ninth grade on track, which shows how many high school freshmen earn one quarter of required credits to graduate during their first year of high school.

“This data sets a new baseline for us as we have transitioned out of the rigid health and safety protocols required by the pandemic,” said Superintendent Christy Perry in the district statement. “It is one of many data points we use to evaluate our systems and make adjustments to improve student outcomes. As our students have entered back this fall, we have doubled down on our expectations for both behavioral expectations and academic achievement.”   

Local schools recorded much higher participation rates in the state tests than Oregon averages, meaning the data from Salem is more illustrative of the student body as a whole.

In 2022, 95% of eligible Salem-Keizer students took the English assessment, 94% took the math test and 92% took the science test. Statewide, participation ranged from 82% to 86%.

While standardized tests are required by the state, parents can choose to opt their children out.

Dan Farley, the director of assessment at the education department, said Tuesday in a call with reporters that the drops show the impact of the pandemic and sustained school closures. 

“Across grades and across content areas, there were drops in proficiency across the pandemic,” he said.

Farley said those impacts weren’t evenly distributed. Middle schoolers and math scores showed larger declines, he said, and scores dropped most for students already in the lowest percentiles of the assessment than for those scoring higher.

But he said there’s reason for hope. States that reopened schools sooner than Oregon, including Texas and Florida, are showing improvements in student assessments following initial pandemic declines, Farley said.

“We’re setting a new baseline and trying to figure out how to accelerate growth from this point on,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.