The pandemic dealt a blow to student learning.

The latest statewide assessment test results show proficiency dropped in reading, science and math across demographics, a trend that's reflected in Rochester Public School's data.

The plummet in academic proficiency follows a year in which students were sent home in March 2020 to avoid the spread of COVID-19 and spent the last year receiving instruction at home via Zoom.

In math and science, less than half of Rochester students met or exceeded standards. In reading, just more than half did. The results provide some insight into what's largely been unknown because statewide assessments weren't conducted in the 2020 school year.

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Most students take a test known as the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment. The Minnesota Department of Education says the tests "measure student performance relative to the Minnesota Academic Standards." Scores receive one of the four designations: Does not meet standards, partially meets standards, meets standards, and exceeds standards. Scores in the latter two categories are classified as proficient.

"The statewide assessment results confirm what we already know -- that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our students' learning and they need our help to recover," Education commissioner Heather Mueller said in a news release.

Rochester Public Schools Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel was unavailable Friday to comment on the local results from the assessment data.

Math

While math proficiency scores have slowly dropped in Rochester Public Schools since 2017, they took a dive during the pandemic, decreasing nine percentage points to 40.1% proficiency among all students.

The most recent state data showed a gap between the performance of Rochester students from different racial groups. For math, 49.4% of white students demonstrated proficiency, while 17.2% of African American students did. This gap mirrored 2019's 59% and 24.8% proficiency scores for white and Black students, respectively. Scores from Asian and Hispanic students also continued to decline from 2017 levels.

The data also shows deepening disparities along economic lines. Of Rochester students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch, only 15.2% scored proficiently in math. In 2019, that number was 25.3%, a decline from 2017's 31.8%.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, 44% of students statewide either met or exceeded grade level standards in math over the past year, which was 11 percentage points down from 2019. Students take math statewide assessments in third through eighth grade, and again in 11th grade.

Reading

Test results for reading fared better than math, with 51.4% of Rochester students demonstrating proficiency, lagging behind 2019's 55.6% proficiency rating.

The percentage of white students who tested proficiently in most recent data was double that of Black students, at 60.7%. This gap has remained relatively stagnant since 2017, when 65.9% of white students tested proficiently compared to 35.8% of Black students. Reading assessments from Hispanic and Asian students dipped slightly from 2019 levels, but the decline wasn't as dramatic as other demographics.

For those Rochester students experiencing homelessness, 16.8% met or exceeded expectations. About a quarter of those who qualified for free or reduced lunch scored proficiently.

Students take reading statewide assessments in third through eighth grade, and again in 10th grade. Across the state, 53% of students either met or exceeded grade level standards in reading, which was nearly 7 percentage points below 2019.

Science

Just less than 40% of Rochester students demonstrated proficiency in science, the lowest of the three subject areas.

Science evaluations are administered to students in fifth and eight grade, and once again in high school.

In this subject, 47.6% of white students tested proficiently, as did 49% of Asian students, 17.3% of Hispanic students and 14.3% of African American students.

Statewide, 43% of students met or exceeded grade level standards in science, which was an 8 percentage point drop below 2019 levels.

A path forward

While the new data clarifies one part of the picture when examining how the pandemic affected student performance, there are other areas that remain blurry.

Typically, this proficiency data is included in a larger North Star Accountability Report, an accountability system that measures school performance statewide by examining academic achievement, graduation and attendance rates, academic progress and language development. However, Minnesota received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to delay releasing some of this data until fall 2022.

In conjunction with the release of this data, the department announced the launch of a collaborative system to accelerate student learning and recoup some of the educational ground lost during the pandemic. Collaborative Minnesota Partnerships to Advance Student Success -- COMPASS for short -- "is aimed at accelerating student learning by meeting their academic, social-emotional and mental health needs as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic," according to a department announcement.

Mueller, the education commissioner, held a conference call Friday morning, talking about how the new COMPASS program will work. During the call, Mueller said education leaders didn't wait for the assessment results to come in to start working on a solution to help students rebound from the pandemic.

She said COMPASS "builds on existing structures and supports." Some of that will be in the form of expanded resources for teachers. For example, schools will be able to access tools such as professional learning, data analysis, as well as a "repository of evidence based practices."

"We know as leaders in schools across the state that it can be a very isolating profession," Mueller said. "What we want to be able to provide is a place and space to have opportunities for learning, to be able to be a sounding board, to be able to provide coaching, and to be really consistent in how we're going to approach and support our schools."

She said the COMPASS program also builds on summer programming. Although COMPASS had not been announced at the time, Rochester Public Schools already began building a more robust summer program in 2021 called "Summer of Discovery."

"COMPASS really is an all-hands-on-deck approach to expand resources and support," Mueller said.