Siobhan Ake worried she would miss the sign, the clue that would tell her if it’s time to pull her second grade son out of public school.  

She wasn’t thrilled with her son’s first year — drastically different from his Montessori kindergarten — or in his being one of just a few Black students in his class in the Issaquah School District. She was apprehensive about how second grade would go, especially amid national concerns about pandemic-era learning loss.

Ake doesn’t think her son has lost ground. He’s reading novels and he can multiply. But with limited information, she can’t know for sure.

More about this project

Losing ground? Some students are struggling in the pandemic. Others are learning to excel.

This is the first in a series of stories about learning this year.

Next: Read how a school district tries to prevent learning loss before it starts, through a combination of data and “obnoxious optimism,” at st.news/highline.

Then: Here’s how education experts are rethinking the future of standardized tests and what they do, or do not, tell us about student learning. st.news/standardizedtests

Like many parents, Siobhan Ake is wrestling with the notion of how best to educate her two children, who are in second grade and preschool. “This year and last year is kind of a crapshoot,” she said. “Is this a good report card? Is this a bad report card? You don’t know.” (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Halfway into this unprecedented school year, it’s clear that many children are struggling: Hospitals are seeing more kids under distress. National studies showed students lost ground in math. Medical research has connected the decrease in learning time with a potentially reduced life expectancy.

But in Washington, there’s little information on how students are faring academically, or how this grand experiment in online learning disrupted the instruction that, until this point, tests had tracked. It matters to public schools because, after enrollment declines this year, districts could lose millions in funding. And more parents, like Ake, are evaluating whether to return at all.

“This year and last year is kind of a crapshoot,” she said. “Is this a good report card? Is this a bad report card? You don’t know.” 

If students are losing ground at different rates, they could be worse off for years to come — unless the education system changes dramatically to accommodate them. “We can’t cram everything into people the same old way but in a shorter period of time,” said Michael Meotti, executive director of the Washington State Achievement Council. “This isn’t a one-time fix.”

Because the data largely hasn’t been examined by race, there’s a nagging worry that those students who so often fall farthest from educational justice are being hurt most by the disparities. “I don’t know if Black and brown kids in Issaquah all sit at the bottom, or if it’s spread across the board,” Ake said.

To get a sense of how students are doing academically, The Seattle Times requested recent academic screeners and diagnostic tests from 18 districts, representing about one third of the state’s K-12 public school enrollment. 

The responses were all over the map. Some districts, like Auburn, Bellevue, Highline and Issaquah, provided some test results. Some didn’t respond at all; others didn’t respond until a Public Records Act request was filed, then only to acknowledge it had been received. 

While the evidence is sparse, subtle signs suggest that kids from low-income backgrounds — who are less likely to have sufficient space, devices or connectivity — are losing out. Some districts are issuing more F’s, often to students who spend less time engaged online. And in Tacoma, students who performed the worst academically before the pandemic might have been the least connected to school this fall.

There are also glimmers of hope: In Bellevue, early looks at what happens when most students engage in remote learning suggest they understand the content. But online school means they’re getting less of it.

In the early grades, district and national testing leaders say, it’s particularly hard to suss out what’s going on: Quick, unlikely improvement among first and second graders suggests parents could be assisting with test-taking.

And on Friday, Renaissance, a company that administers the Star test, released its results for Washington’s first through eighth graders — 52,000 of them took the tests in reading and 30,000 did so in math. In literacy, the average student decreased by 1 percentile point between the fall of 2019 and 2020, compared to a national drop of 3. In math, that number fell by 12 here, compared to 15 nationally.

Interviews with 10 parents and caregivers show some are satisfied, but they have high expectations for what needs to happen — and change — when students return to school buildings.

Why it’s hard to know what’s going on

The state’s education agency has not collected information on academic performance so far. It asked districts to conduct any universal check-in to see how students were doing emotionally and academically this fall, but did not request the results. 

Why not? For school districts, they said, there’s a lot going on, like meeting families’ basic needs. The tools districts use might misrepresent learning, especially if they’re administered at home. And the state wants to rethink testing.

“Learning time is so precious,” said Cindy Rockholt, Washington’s assistant superintendent for educator growth and development, in an October interview. “It’s so difficult for teachers to be spending time on some kind of formal assessment. … We want teachers focused on the day-to-day assessment that they do.”

While teachers are indeed closer to student learning, and can give parents useful information about their kids, education policy has long relied on standardized testing — for all its flaws — as a key source of evidence, a proof point of the structural racism children face in schools. 

“The state needs to figure it out,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “Who else will?” If districts are left on their own, she said, “it’s going to be hugely problematic.” 

“The state needs to figure it out. Who else will?”

Lake said not all districts are administering useful tests, and the point of testing is “not to admonish or beat anybody up, but it’s a way for us to be really honest.”

Some state leaders disagree with her premise. “School districts already have the tools at their disposal,” said Maddy Thompson, Gov. Jay Inslee’s senior education policy adviser. “I don’t think it needs to be (a) statewide measure. … We just have to leave it to the expertise of the educators and needs of the school districts.”

Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said he will be looking at students’ grades as a check on performance. “We’ll start getting a significant understanding from the letter grades,” he said. “We’re going to see a lot of D’s and F’s.” 

Reykdal said he hopes that the new federal COVID recovery money will be given to school districts on the condition that districts will assess learning and well-being. He expected a “robust reopening to come with a better understanding of the individual impact on kids.”

After three reminders, a Seattle Public Schools spokesperson said “screener results need to be obtained via a public records request.” On Jan. 13, the public records office said it needed one more week than the response timeline initially proposed. Only one district, Tacoma, responded with spreadsheets with test score information that can be analyzed.

“What if hospitals responded this way to information requests about COVID cases and deaths?” Lake said. “This is not OK.”

Washington is not alone. Many states lack clear systemic data. But some, like Tennessee, have collected academic results. Others, like Connecticut and Massachusetts, regularly monitor other measures — such as engagement and learning time — as proxies for instruction. 

Outside district-level decisions, getting some form of state-level information on student learning is especially crucial this year, because the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — the only national test that generates comparable information from one state to another — was canceled. Reykdal is asking for another year’s pause on state tests.

Some civil rights groups, including the Education Trust, have encouraged testing. “The greatest fear we should be experiencing right now is a lack of data, a lack of any information about how kids have performed this year in light of this horrible pandemic, in light of anti-Blackness,” said Denise Forte, EdTrust’s senior vice president for partnership and engagement. 

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who will soon take the helm of the Senate’s education committee, also wants more information. “If we don’t know what the learning loss is, … then we are not able to make sure that the funds that go to our schools with the kids that need the most,” Murray said.

“What will happen is the kids who are further behind will get further behind,” she said. “We can’t give up on having the knowledge we need to make sure we are targeting our resources.”

Where are Tacoma’s struggling learners?

Tacoma’s results show how hard it is to characterize how well students are learning online.

Three times a year, Tacoma administers the i-Ready, a test from the company Curriculum Associates that districts use to track student growth internally. 

The diagnostic tests are “formative,” meaning they’re used to capture learning as it happens — and unlike statewide tests, they usually aren’t tied to school accountability, so experts caution reading too much into them. 

Tacoma’s overall scores from October 2020 don’t show much change compared with January 2020, the last time the test was administered before the pandemic. While there were gaps between ethnic groups, they didn’t grow significantly. But not every student was tested; according to a Times analysis, about 17% fewer students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch took the reading tests between January and October.

By comparison, students who don’t receive free or reduced-price lunch saw their participation drop by less than 3%. In math, the latter group fell by 14%, while students eligible for lunch dropped by 25%. District leaders think that might be because fewer families filled out the free or reduced-price lunch paperwork — the food is free to everyone — but they could not say how much that drop can be tied to the paperwork.

And performance before the pandemic was a stronger predictor of who came back in October: Of students performing at or above grade level in January, 78% were engaged enough to take the math test in October. Of students below grade level before the pandemic, just 59% came back. 

That kind of drop-off suggests the district will have to work hard to find the kids who were already struggling before the novel coronavirus blew up their lives.

Tacoma administrators are using January as a time to explore this data with families. “In spite of what’s happening in this crazy new world, we still care,” said Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia. “We’re still trying to do this.”

‘Seattle is flailing a little bit’

For parent Lillian Hill, COVID-19 has provided an education in disparities between school systems. Dissatisfied with her son’s Seattle private school education, she transferred him to a Seattle Public Schools (SPS) elementary school, but was dismayed when the district insisted on having him stop by in-person amid the pandemic or transfer his guardianship to his grandfather in Seattle. At the time, Hill was hospitalized in Los Angeles, recovering from a heart transplant. 

Then a school near Los Angeles offered her son a slot. While he is still struggling, she’s happier with the school system there because it provides ample information, including dashboards on his performance.

“My choice to not send him to (SPS) was a good decision,” she said. “Seattle is flailing a little bit when it comes to information, data and outreach.”

It’s hard to say how SPS students are doing. In response to concerns from some parents and teachers, Superintendent Denise Juneau suspended a midyear diagnostic test.

“There isn’t the appetite for it,” said Diane DeBacker, who worked as SPS’ chief academic officer until earlier this month. “There hasn’t been the appetite for what we would consider routine or normal during the pandemic at all.”

When schools reopen, Beverly Bell, the grandmother of an SPS student, wants to see more mental health support as well as academic assessments. 

“With what the children are going through, it’s going to be very important for them to maybe have a whole class on how they’re feeling,” she said. “It’s really important to bring them up back to speed and not just pass them on.”

Mixed signals

When Julie DeBolt saw her district’s fall i-Ready results, she was surprised. 

“The home environment may have skewed test results,” said DeBolt, the executive director of student learning for the Auburn School District. On the i-Ready, first and second graders appeared to be growing at a fast clip — a trend that could be explained by help.

“I can’t say distance learning is working or is not working.”

In most grades, results were steady, but there was no breakdown by student group. In third grade reading, there were slightly more students two or more years behind grade level, 37% up from 33% last year. 

There were slight declines in third and fourth grade math; in fifth grade math, the proportion of students testing at two or more years below grade level increased from 28% to 37%. 

In high school, 5% more Fs were awarded — and also 6% more As.

“If you’re a student in poverty, and a student of color, in a community that has challenging reception, you’re doing much differently than a highly affluent student,” DeBolt said. “We have students who are thriving or not thriving at all, and are working really hard to just connect with them. … I can’t say distance learning is working or is not working.”

On Bainbridge Island, the number of students with failing high school grades this fall were up 45% from 2019, according to a board presentation. The district said it planned to give these students who were failing access to remote teacher hours and counselor support, and administrators reached out to parents. Some Bainbridge teachers are accepting late work or allowing retakes as district leaders rethink grading.

Among public high school students, on Mercer Island, 229 F grades were given at the end of this year’s first quarter, compared to 121 at the same time last year. The number of students with F grades increased from 86 last year to 126 this year.

Stand for Children Washington, an advocacy group that partners with OSPI to support ninth graders in over 30 schools statewide, noticed a similar trend. “They’re seeing more F’s than they’ve ever seen,” said Virginia Barry, the group’s policy and government affairs manager. “They’re feeling pretty alarmed by the rate of course failure.”

Obscuring the picture

Brandy Lucas of Kent is a single mom and veteran who lost her job early in the pandemic. Her son is in kindergarten, and starting it virtually, she said, is “not fun.” He’s active, with a big imagination. But “his attention span is like the snap of a finger.”

Khylen Lucas, 5, started kindergarten remotely this year at Kent Elementary School. His mother said that the boy, who loves dinosaurs, cars and science, is doing just fine.   (Courtesy of Brandy Lucas / )

Despite that, she’s satisfied with the quality of instruction he’s getting. “He’s learning,” she said. “They’re starting to write and do a little spelling. He’s learned to write his name so far.”

Kent School District’s public relations team did not respond to three queries seeking academic information this year. 

In Highline, four miles west, 80% of students participated in the i-Ready reading test, and 86% participated in math. In third grade, the results were steady, though there were slight dips in some other grades. Those trends were mirrored in reading.

“There are so many variables, including attendance and engagement and accessibility, Wi-Fi, broadband, you name it,” said Susanne Jerde, Highline’s chief academic officer. “But we’re utilizing the best data we have to see if we can at least keep kids closer to that grade level expectation.”

In Renton, also in South King County, the number of low grades in middle and high school science courses increased — as did the number of students who received an IE, “insufficient evidence.” Those grades, district spokesperson Randy Matheson said in an email, “represent losses of learning and are likely indicators of needs for other support beyond additional instructional time in science.”

An Eastside reckoning

On the Eastside, districts known for their wealth are learning how to serve all kinds of students. 

In the biggest one, Bellevue, 95% of students in grades 3-5 completed the Star reading test. The results didn’t vary much from last year, with 69% of students estimated to be on track. About 86% of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch took the test. 

In an internal district report, BSD said it was “not yet on track to reach” the goal of increasing proficiency by at least five percentage points for all student groups in the class of 2026 cohort. 

Because it piloted a new diagnostic test this year, Lake Washington School District could not make a comparison with the previous year’s results.

In Issaquah, before the pandemic, district leaders decided to pay closer attention to its gaps. In the 2018-2019 school year, 80% of white students met English language arts standards; 47.3% of Black students, who made up 2% of the district, did.

“We needed to more closely monitor our achievement gaps,” said Richard Mellish, the executive director of teaching and learning services. 

He wanted to learn more about students living in poverty, students experiencing homelessness, Latino students and Black students. 

That’s why the district began using i-Ready recently — piloted at two schools last year, then expanded districtwide this year. 

It’s too early to say whether the groups he’s worried about saw decreased scores, Mellish said, but he noticed a pattern: “The younger the students they were, the more their losses in reading.” In math, there were more dips across the older elementary grades, and the district is considering bolstering summer school to help. 

“He hasn’t fallen behind, he hasn’t accelerated either.”

Ake, the Issaquah mom, said she’s heartened to see the district paying more attention to all its students. Last year, she switched her son from private school to public school because “it was super hard” to pay private school tuition “knowing he was going to be in a virtual environment,” she said. She also wanted to minimize the disruption to his schooling. 

Because of her experiences that first year in Issaquah, she became more invested in the school and its community. Ake’s been happy with Issaquah’s instruction this year — for the most part. 

“He hasn’t fallen behind, he hasn’t accelerated either,” she said.

Last week, she reached a breaking point. She learned about other private schools that were more proactive about diversity and inclusion, that were more transparent about student achievement. So she decided for her son’s third grade year, she would seek other options.

Staff reporter Dahlia Bazzaz contributed reporting to this story.

Graphics, design and development: Lauren Flannery and Emily M. Eng

Illustration: Jennifer Luxton

Engagement editor: Jenn Smith

Project editor: Katherine Long

Copy editor and project manager: Laura Gordon