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Pennsylvania school testing data reflects learning loss due to the pandemic

Isabelle Schmeler
90.5 WESA

On today’s episode of The Confluence: The executive director of A+ Schools, James Fogarty, weighs in on what can be learned from the results of the 2021 state basic education test scores, the first standardized tests after the start of the pandemic; researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found more than half of the COVID-19 exposures that occurred on public transit took place when buses exceeded capacity limits; and we speak to the creator of map that will help Pittsburghers decide where to enjoy their next fish fry during the season of Lent.

State standardized test scores for 2021 show learning declined when compared to 2018-2019 tests
(0:00 - 8:02)

Student scores on Pennsylvania’s standardized tests fell sharply last year, particularly for grades three to eight, in both math and English language arts. Many education officials say the pandemic and toggling from in-person to remote learning distorted those scores.

“It was really no surprise, right?” says James Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools, a Pittsburgh education advocacy group. “We were already struggling to deliver education in a consistent way to children for the last two years because of this pandemic, and so we knew that it was likely not to be great data coming out of these tests that we saw.”

Statewide, English language scores fell 3.5% to 7%. Math scores declined 7% to 11%. This comparison is between tests administered before the pandemic, in 2019.

State officials cautioned against seeing these scores as complete because of several factors, including decreased student participation in the tests. The state also allowed schools to administer these assessments through September 2021, instead of the typical spring semester, between April and May.

“The Every Student Succeeds Act says they [schools] can't just not participate, but the Every Student Succeeds Act was written prior to a pandemic. So, I think there will be a lot of waivers given by the federal Department of Education for the reality that was on the ground,” says Fogarty, referencing an inconsistent mix of in-person and remote learning across schools.

Fogarty says despite the issues, the data is not unusable.

“I think we should be looking at it from the perspective of school to school within this district and trying to find bright spots that we can grow from. So, where things were better, can we try and emulate that and replicate that across the district?” says Fogarty.

Buses that exceeded capacity limits could have increased exposure to COVID-19 
(8:08 - 15:38)

In the early days of the pandemic, the Port Authority saw a dramatic decrease in ridership, with fewer people needing to commute into work. Taking a bus might have seemed too risky for riders, but for essential workers who lacked access to alternative modes of transportation, the bus and light rail was the only way to work.

A new study from Carnegie Mellon University looked at the spread of COVID-19 on Allegheny County buses and how that impacts those who most rely on the bus system.

Early in the pandemic, the Port Authority enacted rider capacity limits to encourage social distancing and limit the spread of COVID-19. They also instituted a mask rule for riders and drivers.

However, if a bus was at capacity, drivers were left to decide if they should exceed capacity, or not pick up passengers who might be on their way to work or miss other appointments.

“The more people that you allow onto the bus, the people on the bus are at a higher risk of contracting COVID,” says researcher Corey Harper, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at CMU’s Heinz School of Public Policy.

Using data collected by Port Authority from April to September of 2020, researchers learned that 12% of trips were over capacity.

“I do want to make note that the Port Authority Day, they had a tough job here. You know, they had to choose what to prioritize. They had to do it under a lot of uncertainty and very quickly,” says Harper. “But whatever option was chosen, it would have created an equity issue.”

The study estimated that overall, 4% of county COVID-19 cases were contracted on a bus or from a bus rider. Of those cases, 52% were contracted from trips on buses where the capacity exceeded limits set to protect passengers.

Harper says his research team was able to estimate cases contracted while riding buses using an “uncertainty analysis.”

“We went through different assumptions about the COVID infection rate in the county, the masks that were being worn, how many people were on the bus. There is some uncertainty there, but we believe that we accounted for that.”

Harper says the data was shared with Port Authority to highlight the potential inequity of capacity limitations enacted during the pandemic.

“Upon hearing this, it seemed like they had actually already been thinking about some of the inequities that we were seeing,” says Harper. “We also talked to them about, in the future, you know, maybe partnering with ridesharing companies, especially where that's autonomous to be able to deliver isolated rides.”

A volunteer-run online map has helped Pittsburghers find a fish fry during Lent for a decade
(15:42 - 22:30)

The seasonal Lenten fish fries began Friday at churches and fire halls around Pittsburgh. But if you don't have a usual go to spot, how do you figure out where to go?

Well, there is a map for that: the 2022 Pittsburgh Lenten Fish Fry Map.

“I saw all the signs around town, of course, and there were some in my neighborhood and I thought, ‘I've got to see what this is,’” says Hollen Barmer, who created the first map in 2012. “I went to my first one and I was, pardon the pun, hooked.”

Barmer says she wanted to go to more fish fry locations, but says she made the map to help her navigate them, despite her bad sense of direction.

“This year, we currently have 143 mapped and verified, and that is down from our usual total, over two hundred,” says Barmer. “2020 was an all time high, with two hundred and fifty four verified fish fries on the map. So sadly, that map was the beginning of the decline in fish fries.”

Barmer says these days, she’ll pick a fish fry based on if it’s near a route she’ll be near, or if they have interesting sides to enjoy.

The current map is “volunteer-powered,” and is an official project under Code for Pittsburgh.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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