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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky is the latest state to release lackluster results from spring academic assessments, which highlight the impact of two school years upended by the COVID-19 pandemic and bring the work for school districts ahead into sharper focus.

Kentucky’s results were "disappointing but not unexpected" in light of learning disruptions during the pandemic and as other states released similarly low scores, Education Commissioner Jason Glass said this week. Only two testing categories, on-demand writing for middle and high school students, had proficiency rates above 50% in last school year’s Kentucky Summative Assessment, which far fewer students took compared to past years.

"We have a lot of ground to catch up on, and it's going to take us some time for our students and schools to recover from this experience, especially when we know that COVID-19 related disruptions are continuing to occur," Glass said.

Brigitte Blom, president and chief executive officer of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, agreed with Glass and said the 2020-21 assessment results should be seen as a reflection of COVID-19’s impact on learning.

"They should serve to be a call to action to communities, school districts, city and county governments, community-based organizations to be part of the recovery from COVID and an acceleration of learning moving forward," Blom said of the state’s standardized test scores.

Familiar achievement gaps reemerged in this year’s KSA results. Students from low-income or homeless families, those in foster care, English learners, students with disabilities all lagged proficiency rates and topped novice rates statewide in every testing category, according to state data.

So, too, did Black and Latino students. Gaps in "novice" and "proficient" or "distinguished" test scores often exceeded double digits compared to their white peers.

Similar trends emerged in scores posted by students at Jefferson County Public Schools, Kentucky’s largest school district.

Superintendent Marty Pollio told reporters this week that low participation among JCPS students makes the latest round of testing data less reliable than past years.

The district will use internal diagnostic testing called Measures of Academic Progress alongside KSA results to identify students who need more academic help, though he believes MAP results would provide a clearer look at which students need interventions most, he said.

Participation rates at JCPS ranged from 71.8% to 69.9% in elementary school tests, 62.2% to 59.5% in middle school tests and 49.1% to 42.6% in high school tests, state assessment data show.

Achievement gaps "clearly" exist despite less accurate state testing data compared to previous years, "and we have major work to do," he said.

"It would be hard-pressed for me to say it has not been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic," Pollio said. "I would contest and contend that that's the case. I would much rather look at our map data … to really be a valid indicator and a reliable indicator of the achievement gap."

Kentucky’s test results for the 2020-21 school year are "certainly not comprehensive" but do provide "important data points" for consideration, Blom said.

"We know nationally that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted students who were already historically underserved or were facing barriers inside and outside of school," she said.

The data is also the first expansive look at student performance since the COVID-19 pandemic struck and school systems throughout the country were forced to quickly adapt to remote instruction for months.

In the case of JCPS, more than a year passed before classrooms reopened for in-person instruction on hybrid learning schedules.

"Twenty years from now, nobody's going to say that was the COVID generation and we need to give them a pass, so it's incumbent, imperative on communities, school districts, cities and counties to come together right now … to understand what students and families demand of the system right now and make sure they're getting it and it's resulting in the educational attainment that's necessary for their success," Blom said.

Kentucky is not the only state with academic ground to cover based on state assessments as states like Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana saw scores slip in tests taken during the pandemic, according to news reports and information provided by the Southern Regional Education Board.

The regional group is analyzing Kentucky’s results and notes that, generally, learning for all students was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and achievement gaps for Black and Latino students continue to pose issues for states.

Blom said she hoped Kentucky school districts would leverage "unprecedented" federal stimulus money toward helping students recover academically from the COVID-19 pandemic and accelerate learning in their communities.

Stakeholders, including state policymakers, should request information from school districts to monitor how those dollars are used and understand the impacts of such investments, she said.

Without immediate action from school districts and community groups, Blom sees a stagnant future for Kentucky in metrics like median household income and poverty.

She highlighted the community learning hubs provided by JCPS and Evolve502 as an example of being "ahead of the curve" during the pandemic.

"We have a moment in time here where we can capitalize on one of the strengths that Kentucky has long had, and that's our willingness to come together to be collaborators, to problem solve together and identify innovative solutions, and now is the time for that to happen like no time ever before at the community level" she said. "... This global pandemic has been protracted in a way that none of us could have predicted, and it's going to require a new normal as we move forward, so it's important that our public system of education begin to embrace the need for innovation and think about innovative ways that they meet students and families where they are."

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