Flathead Valley Schools Show Performance Declines in Nation’s Report Card, Yet Outperform National Averages

Results from the nation’s first comprehensive education study since the pandemic show learning setbacks for local students across subjects and grades

By Denali Sagner
First day of school at Columbia Falls High School on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), or the Nation’s Report Card, a U.S. Department of Education testing program, released its first set of comprehensive test results since the beginning of the pandemic on Oct. 24, showing unprecedented setbacks for students across the country. While Montana and Flathead County students performed above the national average, the state and county reflected nationwide learning obstacles, with school districts across the valley reporting lower test scores as compared to pre-pandemic assessments. In the wake of the new data, Flathead Valley districts are focusing on closing learning gaps while addressing the wide array of enduring student needs that emerged during the pandemic.  

NAEP, a congressionally mandated program that has been assessing the abilities American schoolchildren since 1969, tracks the performance of students in grades four, eight and 12 in subjects such as mathematics, science and reading. The most recent round of NAEP exams, which were administered in early 2022 after being postponed in 2021, assessed only fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading. The 2022 results sounded alarms for legislators and educators throughout the country, with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona calling the outcomes “appalling and unacceptable,” as reading and math scores trended down for students across the board, cutting across race, income and gender lines.

Though school districts in the Flathead Valley experienced this wider downward slide, their students fared better than the nationwide sample. In the most recent NAEP exams, 51.32% of Flathead County fourth grade students scored at or above proficiency in reading, a number that put the county far above the national average of 33%. The same was true for math, in which 44.97% of Flathead County fourth graders scored at or above proficiency, compared to 37% nationally.

Despite performing above the national average, declines from previous testing periods showed post-pandemic drops for students throughout the valley. In fourth grade reading, the 51.32% of Flathead County students at proficient or advanced in 2022 marked a decline from 53.1% in the 2018-19 school year and 58.12% in the 2017-18 school year. Fourth grade math declines were also precipitous, with the 44.97% of students at proficient or advanced in 2022 comparing to 47.21% in 2018-19 and 48.77% in 2017-18.

Even steeper declines were measured for Flathead County’s eighth graders. The 38% of Flathead County eighth graders scoring at or above proficiency in math in 2022 exceeded the national average of 26%, yet marked a decline from 43.72% in 2018-19 and 47.59% in 2017-18.

57.96% of Flathead County eighth graders scored proficient or advanced in reading in 2022, a much higher percentage than the national 31%. Yet this statistic, too, showed a fall in Flathead County from 64.47% in 2018-19 and 65.69% in 2017-18.

“We’re not that surprised that scores may have gone down,” Columbia Falls Public Schools Superintendent Dave Wick said. Wick emphasized that although the Columbia Falls School District remained open throughout most of the pandemic, as did many districts in the county, disruptions to normal learning patterns may have led to inevitable losses for students.

In addition to interruptions in classroom instruction, mental health issues, which spiked during the pandemic, also hindered student achievement. According to the Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a study conducted by the Office of Public Instruction, 41% of Montana high school students in 2021 reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 30-year high. In the same survey, 61.4% reported poor mental health “sometimes,” “most of the time” or “always.” For many teenagers, pandemic-induced isolation, family economic hardship, health concerns and the challenges of remote learning hindered learning progress, even after classrooms reopened. 

Wick added that while teenage depression has always been a concern for the district, mental health issues trickled into younger grades during the pandemic, manifesting in novel ways for educators across all age groups.

Michele Paine, Flathead High School principal, also noted “a shift in students’ needs as far as mental health” in an email to the Beacon, including increased concerns over “depression, anxiety and suicide issues.” While high school students were not assessed through NAEP this year, 11th grade students throughout Montana sat for the ACT and scored considerably lower, on average, than previous years.

Despite the new landscape of mental health and learning concerns, Wick said that the Columbia Falls School District “weathered the pandemic better than a lot of jurisdictions.” The superintendent is optimistic about students’ recovery, especially in the wake of expanded summer school and tutoring programs introduced by the district to combat learning losses.

Paine reflected a similar optimism about her high school students, despite wide-reaching setbacks. “The social disruption of COVID was our biggest challenge, although as each school year goes by, students are closer to their well-adjusted, socially competent selves,” she said. “Because public schools do many things beyond academics, we have responded and adjusted to meet our students’ needs.”

“It’s going to take little bit of time to do everything we can to increase students academic abilities,” Wick said, looking ahead to the rest of the school year. “Kids are resilient, I think we’re going to recover.”

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