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Poor test scores concern Del. business leaders

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A significant drop in test scores by Delaware public school students has concerned business leaders. | PHOTO COURTESY OF UNSPLASH/ NGUYEN DANG HOANG NHU

In late October, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known since its founding in the early 1990s as “the Nation’s Report Card,” revealed that math scores of the country’s fourth and eighth graders have come up failing in nearly every state. 

In fact, the scores represented the deepest declines in math discovered in the history of the report, with only 26% of the country’s eighth graders being proficient in the subject, down from 34% proficiency before the COVID pandemic. Similar results were reported for fourth graders – just 36% were proficient, down from 41% from before COVID.  

Worse, from a local standpoint, Delaware’s student math scores were among the lowest in the U.S. – only 18% of the state’s eighth graders tested proficient in math, as did only 26% of fourth graders, ranking the state better only than the District of Columbia, West Virginia and New Mexico.

Michael Fleming | PHOTO COURTESY OF DELAWARE BIO

“These results are tragic and deeply concerning for all of us,” said Michael Fleming, president of the Delaware BioScience Association, which represents some of the state’s most technologically advanced companies. “It is clear the pandemic shutdown was a disaster for students and, not surprisingly, disproportionately impacted poor, disadvantaged kids the most.”

Bob Perkins, executive director of the Delaware Business Roundtable, which represents the state’s top CEOs, said the pandemic put Delaware’s public education issues “on steroids,” especially in early childhood education.

Bob Perkins | PHOTO COURTESY OF DELAWARE BUSINESS ROUNDTABLE

“Companies [considering locating here] will of course look at the constant barrage of bleak test results, but they will also look at what the state is doing to address the issue. I think what Gov. Carney is doing with the Wilmington Learning Collaborative shows that we are willing to take on a challenging education project in getting three school districts to work together, and I give him a lot of credit for that. Businesses will look at things like this,” he added.

Kurt Foreman, president and CEO of the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, the state’s public-private economic development organization, added that, “These entities are mindful about data, and some may focus on enhancing the K-12 innovation, school effectiveness and student success that helps lay the foundation for future education, training and career success.”

The findings did not come as a surprise to educators or to many parents mindful of the limitations of online learning. 

“The NAEP results reinforce what we knew – Delaware students were significantly impacted by the pandemic and school building closures,” Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Holodick said. “These scores align with what we saw in our state assessment when comparing pre-pandemic to post-pandemic assessment results. While remote learning allowed schools to continue supporting students during building closures, remote instruction has many limitations.”

Both business leaders and educators are quick to point out teachers and schools are not to be blamed for their low performance. In fact, they note the findings might have been worse without the dedication and hard work of educators quickly pivoting to online learning.

Further, there was a reason math scores in particular suffered, said Kevin Dykema, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). 

“The thinking has been that mathematics learning builds on students’ available mathematics understandings,” he said. “It also has to do with sense making. If students are not making some sense of mathematics, based on what they know, it is even more challenging to use that information moving forward. Learning mathematics was more challenging to teach and learn in the virtual space for teachers and students.”

Fleming agrees.

“We can and must improve these outcomes, but we also should not expect public educators to bear sole responsibility for testing results that can reflect complex social challenges all too often associated with poverty,” he said. “Addressing these challenges requires a full community effort from all of us in business, neighborhoods and families.”

Measures need to be taken, these leaders warn, to prevent poor proficiency from getting worse, and Dykema thinks that business can play a role. 

“Many teachers are contemplating leaving the classroom,” he warned. “I think providing the community support and appreciation would help significantly in encouraging teachers to stay. 

If the business community would stand up for and with teachers, it would mean a lot.”

And, while the situation is troubling, Foreman believes it will be rectified in time. 

“I am confident that the children of Delaware families are able to receive a good education, take advantage of a variety of educational program opportunities and develop knowledge and skills that serve many industries, both within and outside STEM – as well as their own diverse career interests and job goals,” he said. 

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