BISMARCK — North Dakota students tested less proficiently in math and English during the 2020-21 school year, supporting educators' suspicions about the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on K-12 learning.

Each spring, students in grades 3-8 and students in grade 10 take the North Dakota State Assessment in math and English. The percentage of students who tested "proficient" or "advanced" in math and English dropped in the spring of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic times, according to data from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

The rate of students who tested "proficient" or "advanced" in math declined from 45% in the spring of 2019 to 38% in the spring of 2021 — a drop of 7 percentage points.

In English, the rate of students who scored "proficient" or "advanced" fell by 5 percentage points in the spring of 2021 compared to the spring of 2019 — from 47% to 42%.

"This decline is significant, and it presents a challenge to all of us as educators in North Dakota,” State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said in a statement Thursday, Oct. 7.

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Educators have long suspected that the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered student mental health and learning.

Many North Dakota K-12 schools began the 2020-21 school year with distance learning in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged school districts to implement pandemic mitigation strategies, such as masking and social distancing, so students can safely attend school in person, as it is widely agreed that in-person learning is the most beneficial for students.

Along with the rate of students testing "proficient" or "advanced" declining, the rate of students scoring "novice" or "partially proficient" has increased compared to scores in 2019.

The Department of Public Instruction earlier this year created a list of ways schools can help students in closing the pandemic learning gap. North Dakota school districts have also received significant funding from federal stimulus packages, some of which can only be used to address the pandemic's impacts.

"We have experienced significant loss and now are presented with an opportunity to make a significant comeback," Baesler said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.