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Historic declines in national test scores highlight pandemic learning loss

FILE - Audra Quisenberry, right, whispers in the ear of her classmate, Logan Bowhay, both 6, as they wait to meet other schoolmates via online Zoom, at Premier Martial Arts, Aug. 24, 2020, in Wildwood, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
FILE - Audra Quisenberry, right, whispers in the ear of her classmate, Logan Bowhay, both 6, as they wait to meet other schoolmates via online Zoom, at Premier Martial Arts, Aug. 24, 2020, in Wildwood, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)
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Students in the U.S. are suffering from historical setbacks in their schooling in another example of how the coronavirus pandemic altered the nation’s future and hurt future generations’ education.

Findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “the nation’s report card,” were sobering for the nation’s education system. Scores were down across the country in both math and reading. Math scores dropped by the largest margin ever, with nearly 40% of eighth graders being unable to perform basic math concepts.

Declines were seen across the board in high- and lower-performing students in rural, suburban and urban districts across the county.

It was the first time the test had been given since the pandemic’s onset and gave a broader look at the impact the virus had on students. NAEP tests are typically given every other year to a large sample fourth and eighth graders to test students’ academic achievement.

Only 26% of eighth graders were proficient in math across the U.S., down from 34% in 2019. Fourth graders also were less proficient at the subject, with 36% meeting the mark, down five percentage points from two years ago. Proficiency means students meet competency for their grade level and are on track for future success.

The significant decline in math achievement was not surprising to experts, as math scores tend to fluctuate more severely than reading when met with disruptions to education.

Scores for reading also saw a decline in over half the country, with no states having a substantial improvement.

“Unless we take serious action to target resources that accelerate learning, the effects of the pandemic will be long lasting for students and will affect their ability to compete in the future economy,” said Denise Forte, CEO of The Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for academic achievement, particularly for disadvantaged students.

Zero states had a significant improvement in average test scores regardless of how they handled in-person instruction during the pandemic.

Many questions and concerns have been raised about the education of the nation’s kids after the pandemic threw the school system into some variation of online or hybrid learning while schools shut down to prevent the spread of the virus or infections didn’t leave enough healthy teachers to teach a class in person.

Monday’s release of test results showed the severity of the effect of pandemic learning loss, though it does call into question how much a lack of in-person teaching had. For example, California and Florida — states with drastically different responses to the pandemic — both suffered similar declines.

Billions have already been invested in getting kids back on track, though the road back will be bumpy as districts and students try to overcome time restraints, staffing shortages and other hurdles.

Schools also have to identify the students who are most in need of extra support and figure out a way to provide it in a way that builds on their regular time in the classroom, experts say.

“What really needs to happen is that people are really paying attention to what other students are able to keep up in terms of coming to class, getting the work done, getting strong grades, and if they're not, those are the students who really need support,” said Elaine Allensworth, executive director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

In places where funding is available to be spent on additional student resources, getting all the pieces in place in a coordinated fashion to help students is a tremendous logistical challenge. Without coordination across programs and the time spent in class, the extra programs may not be as effective as possible.

“The most important thing is that students and teachers have kind of like a safe, orderly, supportive environment where the process of teaching and learning can happen and that's where the focus needs to be,” Allensworth said. “Because unless you have that base, then any of those extra supports aren't going to have anything to latch on to.”

School districts received about $190 billion in funding for pandemic recovery, though it’s unclear if that will be enough to get students back on track or if all of it will be spent on remediation.

A study released earlier this month by the American Education Research Association estimated the unprecedented levels of funding were nowhere near enough to offset the cost of recovering learning loss. The study estimated about $700 billion would be required to overcome learning loss.

The authors of the study, Kenneth Shores and Matthew Steinberg, said it was also unclear how districts are spending the funding they received.

“The road back I think is gonna be a bumpy one, because lots of districts are not spending the money they got from (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) on remediation,” said Shores, who is an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Delaware. “And I don't think parents are fully aware of what this lost learning means for their kids and also the economic prospects of the country. So that's kind of the thing that I'm most worried about is that the money is there, but they're not really using it in the kind of urgency that they need to use.”

The formula in which the ESSER funds were distributed was also not as targeted as possible as the federal government rushed to get money into districts being overtaken by the virus. Rather than writing new rules to distribute federal funds to places most in need, the federal government relied on existing formulas based on how many students are in poverty in the district and how much money a state puts into education.

“This maps on to what we saw with (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) during the Great Recession, they kind of took an existing funding formula system and slapped the federal stimulus on top of it,” Shores said. “In both cases, it wasn't very well aligned with what was actually going on on the ground in terms of the crisis at hand.”

District that have tried to use ESSER funding to remediate students have tried several methods from additional tutoring, summer school and extending time spent at school, among others.

Part of the struggle is a shortage of teachers and staff to be there helping students and operating the extended programs.

“The important point is and what we don't really understand at this point is how district- and school-level decision-making interacts with the reality around the educator labor market,” said Steinberg, an associate professor of education and public policy at George Mason University. “We may want to invest in tutoring and extended school days and additional supplemental instruction within the school, but it requires having human capital resources to do that.”

Without recovering proficiency lost during the pandemic, the nation’s future generations could face years of consequences when it comes to going to college or getting into the workforce.

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“There's a lot to be worried about, both at the individual student level and their competitiveness for college admissions processes, but also for the country because the national level of achievement in the country is important for the country's economic growth,” Shores said.

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