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In recent weeks, news outlets and social media have been filled with depressing stories about “declines” in student achievement, in both reading and math. These reported downturns were not observed in terms of student problem-solving or thought processes, but on standardized test scores.

This measured dip in performance, according to the stories, can be attributed to the attention-grabbing phenomenon called “learning loss,” a post-pandemic term that has become common parlance in educational circles.

Learning loss is being framed as a “generational emergency,” leading to a collective wringing of hands, the organization of sudden emergency meetings and reactionary reallocation of funds.

But what learning did students actually lose?

It is inconceivable to me that students simply stopped learning during the pandemic’s lengthy societal upset. Whether we are trying to help our families navigate stressful challenges or working through a math book, we are all learning all of the time.

We do know that the pandemic had a devastating impact on students and families, especially low-income families, and schools serving Black and Latinx students, measurably worsening inequities and exacerbating racial injustice. A 2021 study showed that the pandemic disproportionately impacted Black students, prompting a heightened distrust of education.

And there is every reason to expect disruptions in student learning post pandemic. But teachers were heroic during the pandemic, and data shows that students continued to strive toward meaningful learning, even with many forms of chaos erupting all around them.

For example, results from the 2020-21 National Speak Up Project, which collected data from more than 50,000 K-12 students, teachers and administrators, found that the percentages of students who said they were interested in their schoolwork and and engaged in school were roughly the same whether they were learning in person, online or in a hybrid version.

Similarly, when a recent Stanford study compared math achievement in different states, it found that declines in achievement came from many sources, and should not be solely attributed to learning modes. California, for example, had more school closures than any other state and some of the smallest declines in math achievement. Former California superintendent of the year Devin Vodicka has argued, convincingly, that any test score declines were a result of the emotional and economic hardship the pandemic caused students, not the change in learning mode.

Related: OPINION: We must address Covid-related grief and other pandemic impacts on children

The National Speak Up Project also showed that, in 2016, before the pandemic, 81 percent of students said that doing well in school was important to them. In 2021, mid-pandemic, the exact same proportion of students gave this positive response. These results are important, as they speak to student motivation to learn and their engagement and interest in the content of their learning, both of which are arguably more important than differences in scores on standardized tests.

Headlines that focus on perceived “losses” serve as yet another blow to the morale of hardworking teachers and the families they serve. Educators went to superhuman lengths to engage their students during the pandemic, and teachers deserve assessments that give full consideration of their successes and that use holistic measures of student growth instead of standardized test scores.

Students deserve the same.

And rather than knee-jerk reactions to the declines in standardized test performance, the pandemic should prompt a much-needed educational reset. My suggestion is that such a reset start with a careful and broad consideration of where our students are, what they most need and what they really learned during the pandemic.

I think the results of such a consideration would surprise us all.

One of the greatest contributions of the study of neuroplasticity — the science that investigates the mind’s ability to adjust and adapt — is the revelation that our brains are growing, strengthening and connecting all of the time, particularly during adolescence.

Did students lose learning during the pandemic? Or did they replace the learning of facts and methods, the sort of rote learning that might bring success on a test, with knowledge and insights about the world, health challenges, global upheaval, exponential growth, technology and ways to help their families and navigate complex social situations?

I think it’s quite clear that they did all of these things, and considerably more, during an unpredictable historical era.

Wise initiatives to improve education would start from the new knowledge students developed and respect for who they are now, instead of trying to patch holes in a leaky system that was not serving students well before the pandemic.

Related: OPINION: Inequality is still at the heart of student NAEP score performance

I spent part of the summer of 2022 teaching a free data science course to high school students in San Jose, California. The course was optional, and the students earned no high school or college credits. Despite this, the diverse group of teenagers arrived each day, taking time out from their challenging home lives, eager to learn.

When we asked the students to question data on climate change and its sources, they dove in, displaying curiosity, critical thinking skills, computer and data literacy. They even asked questions about ethics and funding.

It is hard for me to imagine that this group of young people had stopped learning during the pandemic. Maybe they’d shifted their priorities and turned some of their attention to the meaning of data in the world and to problem solving — understandings likely more important than many of the areas of knowledge assessed in routinized, standardized tests.

What learning did students actually lose?

Rather than wringing our collective hands over declines in math and reading scores, we would be better off noting that math achievement has been unacceptable and severely inequitable for decades now.

We should also consider the learning gains that our students achieved during the pandemic. Young people learned to manage complex family situations, they learned to navigate online learning and they developed new levels of maturity as they sought their own understanding of a once-in-a-century global emergency.

If funds are reallocated in post pandemic years, careful consideration should be given to two important areas. One is the mathematics approach that students need and deserve, taking account of the decades of research that show a better way to teach and learn.

The second is attention to students’ mental health, well-being and mind-sets. While it may be true that students continued, admirably, to focus on schoolwork during the pandemic, their mental health undoubtedly suffered, and that is a more important focus for attention and funding than anything else.

Jo Boaler is Nomellini and Olivier Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, co-founder of youcubed.org and the author of “Limitless Mind: Learn, Lead & Live without Barriers.”

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Letters to the Editor

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  1. “We should also consider the learning gains that our students achieved during the pandemic. Young people learned to manage complex family situations, they learned to navigate online learning and they developed new levels of maturity as they sought their own understanding of a once-in-a-century global emergency.”
    Yes, I’ve been pointing this out for quite a while. They also (we all hope) learned some valuable lessons about how to deal with pandemics coming during the next decades when they will be in charge. I’m not optimistic that this pandemic was a “once in a century” event.

  2. I have worked as a professional math tutor for over 30 years. I have always worked with students that our educational system has failed in some way. Most of these students in past years have been bright and motivated and just need a little extra help to get to understanding and then mastery of whatever topic they are learning.

    In the past 3 years, I have seen a marked difference in the student population seeking tutoring help. I am not alone in the tutoring world in observing this phenomenon. No longer are these bright students who have the prerequisite knowledge for the problems set before them who are just missing a concept or just the right wording to have a “light bulb moment.” It’s not that there has been learning loss. That is an unfortunate choice of words, so perhaps a different choice of words would be more appropriate. It’s not that they have lost something they had already learned. It is that they have not learned at all what they would normally have learned in a given subject for their age and grade level. I am encountering, as an example, students who are trying to solve rational equations who do not have a basic understanding of simple inverse algebraic operations. I ask myself nearly daily, “How did this student even get to this point? This problem is entirely inappropriate for their level of math knowledge. They should never have made it to this class they are in.” You say, “These reported downturns were not observed in terms of student problem-solving or thought processes…” And yet I see this every. single. day. Students have not just lost the prerequisite skills needed for a given topic or class. They are lacking critical thinking skills they would normally have at a given age. They lack motivation to grapple with difficult material.

    I do not disagree with most of the premises in your op-ed. Math education does need to be reevaluated. Mental health is more important than any academic achievement. Students did have learning in other areas besides traditional academics. But the declines in standardized testing scores are not to be ignored or minimized and indeed are indicative of a significant problem in mathematics that I and other tutors have noticed in the past three years.

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