Missouri education commissioner explains what’s next after declining tests scores


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The effect the pandemic had on students in Missouri resulted in declining test scores in all subjects and grade levels. 

It’s no surprise to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) the pandemic affected students’ learning.

Standardized test scores show students in Missouri who went to school in person last year performed better than those who were virtual. Across the board, math was the hardest hit submit. 

“I actually thought it could have been a lot worse,” DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven told our Missouri Chief Capitol Bureau Reporter Emily Manley.

“I will tell you, we’ve got a lot of work to do and this one data point does not tell the whole story.”

From in-person learning to virtual and hybrid classrooms, the past 18 months have been anything but normal for students and teachers. 

“There was a more significant impact at our earlier learners than at the high school,” Vandeven said. It’s not your typical one-year results. This is really reflective of two school years.”

Schools in Missouri closed in the spring of 2020, meaning standardized testing didn’t happen. Some schools reopened their doors for in-person learning in the fall of 2020 while others stayed virtual or offered hybrid learning. 

“We still wanted to give those tests because we think we need that data to understand but it was more about let’s not place judgment and make high stake decisions about what we need to change in the curriculum,” Vandeven said. 

This past spring, 90% of students in Missouri’s K-12 public schools participated in the test. That percentage is less than in previous years. Vandeven said she was prepared for the worst. 

“Why we talked about not comparing is the conditions were so vastly different and we even in our schools that did go full time back in person, they had students that were quarantined, they had teachers that were quarantined or sick,” Vandeven said. 

The tests show only 45% of students are proficient or advanced in English Language Arts, dropping four points from 2019. Students dropped seven points in math, the biggest drop-off, from 42% to 35%.

And in science, 37% tested proficient or advanced in 2021 compared to 42% in 2019. Elementary students decline the most and the biggest decrease in learning was Algebra 1.

The smallest decrease was in English in fourth and eighth grade and eighth-grade math. 

“We do need to hold high expectations, we still do need to help our children, but understand that this has been a disruptive time period,” Vandeven said.

“They will catch up; they will be able to acquire those skills it just might take a little bit more time than what we were accustomed to doing before.”

Test score data goes on to show that every ethnicity felt the effect of the pandemic. Asian students still overperformed other ethnicities with a proficiency rate of 56% while black students struggled the most at 15%.

Vandeven said to get students back on track, parents need to consider tutoring and ask teachers what kind of help their child needs. 

“Does grade base learning even make sense anymore,” Vandeven said. “Are there ways for us to make it expressly clear to students how to get to the next level and then think about those competencies that can be acquired through the system. Really focusing on what do students need to know and be able to do to be successful.”

In the last two weeks, Vandeven said she’s met with teachers from across the state about the results of the test scores. 

“Many of them thought it mirrored what they were seeing at the local level in terms of math and reading in particular,” Vandeven said. “But what they shared is that they are very eager to be there, our kids are happy to be back.”

Due to the pandemic, the test scores from this year were waived from state and federal accountability systems. Vandeven said the federal government has not decided on this upcoming spring’s assessment testing.

She said Missouri schools were given $2.9 billion from the American Rescue Act Plan which can be used over the next three years. 

“There has been significant investment in our states and our schools to make sure that our doors can remain open, that our students are being educated to the best of their ability,” Vandeven said.

“With the federal government making that kind of investment, I think they are going to want to see the results of that and how our students are doing.”

Vandeven said all public schools in Missouri are back to learning in person this year. Since the start of the school year, she said 10 districts have experienced some type of temporary closure. 

Compared to other states, Vandeven said Missouri has similar tests results with the biggest impact in math. 

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