Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Pennsylvania Student Proficiency Rates Rebound Partially from COVID-19-Related Declines

Given the magnitude of the disruption the COVID-19 pandemic caused to education practices, there has been considerable interest in understanding how the pandemic may have affected student proficiency. In this guest blog, Stephen Lipscomb, Duncan Chaplin, Alma Vigil, and Hena Matthias of Mathematica discuss their IES-funded grant project, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), that is looking at the pandemic’s impacts in Pennsylvania.  

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 brought on a host of changes to K–12 education and instruction in Pennsylvania. Many local education agencies (LEAs) instituted remote learning and hybrid schedules as their primary mode of educating students, while others maintained in-person learning. Statewide assessments, which were suspended in spring 2020, resumed in 2021 with low participation rates, particularly among students with lower performance before the pandemic. Furthermore, test administration dates varied from spring 2021 to fall 2021. Pennsylvania statewide assessment data reveal that student proficiency rates may have rebounded in 2022, despite remaining below pre-pandemic levels. In grades 5–8, there was a marked increase in proficiency in English language arts (ELA) and a slightly smaller increase in proficiency in math compared to 2021 proficiency rates predicted in recent research. Despite these gains, increasing student proficiency rates to pre-pandemic levels will require additional efforts.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has been committed to providing LEAs with the resources and support necessary to help students achieve pre-pandemic academic proficiency rates. To learn more about changes in how those rates may have been associated with the pandemic, PDE and Mathematica partnered to explore trends in student proficiency data for students in grades 5–8. Given the lower and nonrepresentative participation in the 2021 statewide assessments, as well as the differences in when LEAs administered the assessments, we developed a predictive model of statewide proficiency rates for spring 2021 to produce predicted proficiency rates that would be more comparable to previous and future years. The results revealed that steep declines in proficiency likely occurred between 2019 and 2021 (see Figure 1 below). By spring 2022, proficiency rates in grades 5–8 regained 6 percentage points of their 10 percentage point drop in ELA and nearly 5 percentage points of their 13 percentage point drop in math. Taken together, these results suggest that although the pandemic may have originally been associated with declines in students’ academic proficiency, over time, student proficiency might move back towards pre-pandemic levels.


Figure 1. Actual and predicted proficiency rates in grades 5–8 in Pennsylvania, 2015–2022

The figure shows actual proficiency rates from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, averaged across grades 5–8, unless marked by either an open or closed circle. Notes: Open circle indicates Statewide assessment cancelled; closed circle indicates predicted proficiency rate. The figure shows actual proficiency rates from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, averaged across grades 5–8, unless marked by either an open or closed circle.

Source: Data from 2015–2019 and 2022 are from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The 2021 data are predicted proficiency rates from Lipscomb et al. (2022a). The figure originally appeared in Lipscomb et al. (2022b).  


The next steps for this project will include a strong focus on dissemination of our findings. For example, we will develop a research brief that describes the role of remote learning in shaping academic outcomes beyond proficiency rates and community health outcomes during the pandemic. The findings will help PDE and LEAs refine strategies for supporting vulnerable students and help state policymakers and educators learn from the COVID-19 pandemic—specifically how it might have affected student outcomes and educational inequities.

This blog was produced by Allen Ruby (, Associate Commissioner for Policy and Systems Division, NCER.

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