School test scores show how students struggled because of COVID

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

York County school officials braced for test score results for the last year, anticipating a precipitous drop due to lost classroom time and family strife brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, with the release of National Assessment of Educational Progress data, the impacts are becoming clear: Virtually every district saw a measurable decline in academic performance, some more dramatic than others.

“I am aware the scores have dropped," said York Suburban High School Principal Brian Ellis. "Ours have dropped a bit but not significantly. I am proud of that.”

York Suburban, which saw a less-dramatic decline in test scores than many districts across York County, was the only public school district to respond to The York Dispatch's requests for comment.

York Suburban Senior High School in Spring Garden Township, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Nation's Report Card: The NAEP gathers data to document how regions are doing every few years through specific tests. The recent assessment, or Nation's Report Card, reported Pennsylvania’s eighth grade math score average was 273 out of 500. Only 19 other states performed better, while 16 averaged close to national public average and 18 performed lower. The Department of Defense Education Activity — which represents schools on military bases — scored 292. Puerto Rico scored 216.

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Reading was different. Pennsylvania scored a 259 in eighth grade reading. Ten performed better, 30 roughly the same and 12 performed lower.

The scale score summarizes a students' overall performance levels. The individual students' and schools' scores are not reported, but rather an average of the state, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Pennsylvania's fourth grade math scored 238; the nation's average was 235. The average fourth grade reading score was 219, which the organization reported was lower than the 2019 score of 223.

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District dedication: Ellis believes the district's dedication to the students made the minimal change in test scores possible. The district will keep helping the students achieve their highest level, which they were already doing, but it is now more pronounced because of COVID challenges. 

The principal said the teachers are being responsive to students' needs. The staff is doing remedial activities to help them catch up where needed. Ellis said they are trying to help fill the students’ education gaps and get them back up where they traditionally would be. 

Ellis said honors level and advanced placement students did not miss a beat, but the broader student population struggled to overcome the challenges.

Making up ground: York Suburban Elementary School Principal Denise Fuhrman said staff used the lessons they learned from cyber learning. They prioritized their curriculum to be about what was most important. 

“We know that there are gaps to fill, and we remain focused on not only providing the grade level materials,” she said. "We also recognize there are some gaps that need to be filled."

A student looks at questions during a college test preparation class at Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2016. Changes are in the works for the SAT exam.

“There’s still kiddos who have significant absences due to exposure to different illnesses and things like that,” she added. 

Instead of covering everything and going back to recover it, Fuhrman said the teachers dug deeper into what the students needed most, such as what would be reintroduced in the next grade level. 

Ellis explained some of the problems came because the students weren’t always in school. He said they have 180 days of school. If the students are there, the system works as it should; but when there are disruptions, there's more difficulty. 

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Ellis said many students did well during the blended year when students spent some days in school and some days schooling from home. However, there were a lot more students missing more days of school because of quarantine and isolation. 

“All those pieces in combination have impacted students in some way and that’s why we’re seeing across the board that most scores are down,” Ellis said. “But it significantly impacted some of our students who missed a lot of school or did critically poorly with the hybrid or the blended learning kind of approach.”

Fuhrman said the real test is how students are performing in the next grade level, such as 2021-22 second graders will do in third grade this year. 

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Other results: Hanover schools also had small changes, as did Red Lion, Southeastern and West York, in math and science. 

Schools such as York City’s Keystone Exam scores from 2021, 2019-2016, do prove the nation's numbers. Their math dropped in all categories but below basic, which rose from 35.7% to 50%. In science, advanced and basic rose a little while below basic stayed at 50%, just as it did in 2019. Scores dropped across language arts except below basic, which jumped up to 70.6% from 30.5%.

In science, Dallastown saw the biggest change in its advanced science with advanced and proficient scores cut in half. Basic rose around 20 points. Dover's proficient score dropped from 50.9% to 9.5%. Eastern’s science also took a hit, with advanced and proficient scores dropping by more than half. 

Logos Academy students in their 5th grade classroom in York on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022.

Dover saw a shift, with its advanced scores sliding from 30.2% to 21.8%. Eastern saw a similar decline in both advanced and basic science scores. Northeastern’s advanced also dropped by about eight percentage points. York City’s science proficiency scores fell from 19.1% to 12.1%. York Suburban saw a drop in advanced scores, from 36.1% to 29.9%. Basic rose from 6.6% to 11.5%. 

Catholic schools: Local Catholic schools do not take the same tests as public schools but did participate in the Nation’s Report Card. Daniel Breen, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg's superintendent of schools, said instead of the end-of-the-year tests, they use Renaissance Star Testing in their elementary schools, which tests three times a year. The local schools started this testing in 2019, which means they don't have any data from prior to the pandemic that could serve as a comparison.

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Its Renaissance test results have shown their students tested 72% proficient in reading and 70% proficient in math, both higher than public schools’ performances.

Act 158 concern: Ellis is concerned about this year’s new graduation requirements under Act 158, which was signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018. The legislation gave students the option to graduate through several different paths that involve some combination of testing and experiential learning.

For Ellis, the timing of Act 158 — he noted that this is the first year students are impacted by the new legislation — is concerning. Despite the presence of four paths that hypothetically make it easier for them to graduate, the disruptions due to the pandemic are still significant.

This class of students, he said, has been impacted by COVID more than any other.

The public can view all of the PSSA test scores data at and the Keystone data on the Pennsylvania Department of Education's website at

— Reach Meredith Willse at or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.