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The Nation’s Report Card, with its bad news about National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, math and reading scores, drove home a message long hinted at: The pandemic created disastrous academic deficits for U.S. students, especially for young people of color.

Math and reading scores dominate our understanding of student success; the current levels of learning loss — and the worrisome downward trend despite the return to “normal” — are unacceptable. For the sake of all students, particularly Black, Hispanic and Native American students, we clearly must make a priority of addressing these core concerns.

The latest data show that math and reading proficiency are down for fourth and eighth graders in virtually every state and every demographic. For both grades tested, in 2019 and 2022, Black, Hispanic and Native American students received the lowest scores, reflecting the high concentration of students of color in underresourced, underperforming schools. Because of the emphasis on math and reading scores, these groups of students are deemed universally less well prepared, and the gaps between their scores and white students’ scores have widened.

In other words, Black, Hispanic and Native students have been behind for years; they were behind before the pandemic; and now, in many cases, they are even further behind.

While it is good news that these results are lighting a fire under the education policy world and highlighting the particular need among students of color, the traditional approach to improving results — more math, more reading, more pressure — seems dubious at best.

The pandemic created disastrous academic deficits for U.S. students, especially for young people of color.

Strategies such as extending instructional days and “high-dosage” tutoring might stabilize scores in some districts that have previously struggled, but it is hard to believe that cramming for the tests in this way will lead to long-term improvements for underserved students (although the results would likely shift attention away from the adults in charge).

Obviously, if low-income students can be tutored, all students can be tutored — and better-resourced communities will be quick to catch on to this. The achievement gap will therefore not be narrowed; it will at best be moved to a higher position on the comparison chart. The root causes of underperformance will remain, and lower-income communities will still be at a clear disadvantage.

Related: Massive learning setbacks show Covid’s sweeping toll on kids

Education during the pandemic was itself an educational experience, although not one that can be assessed by the NAEP. Disproportionately, students in underresourced schools and Black, Hispanic and Native American students — again, often intersecting populations — had a more challenging experience with the move to virtual learning. The challenges they faced required them to be even more active participants in their education.

I believe it is precisely because of this experience of engaging differently that many students emerged with a number of new skills worth noting. Anyone who listens to young people these days will find that at least one of the following resonates:

  1. Young people, for whom a sense of connectedness is crucial developmentally, learned how to make connectionsdespite the emptiness of the virtual environment. They essentially learned and mastered a new paradigm. As digital natives, they were the first to embrace online life fully, summarize its possibilities, test its limits and express clearly what it failed to provide.
  2. Young people learned how to risk failingwithout losing resiliency. They gained real-life problem-solving skills and became resourceful and flexible thinkers. Experimentation, cooperation and the clear option to fail (sometimes spectacularly) shaped their everyday thinking — it was everywhere, as all of us tried to understand first how to survive, then how to prevail. As a result, young people have emerged as a new generation of “adaptive natives.”
  3. Being part of a global community, with a pandemic as the common enemy, brought out a deeper understanding of self, humanity and the social contract. Young people everywhere have discovered how to ask eloquently for what they need,especially support for their mental well-being; they are just as clear when they ask that their opinions be considered.
  4. Perhaps as an extension of this heightened self-awareness, young people are finding out how to be powerful advocates for others, effortlessly embracing those whose causes are not theirs, but whose obstacles are just as difficult. They willingly make space for others who are like them and others who are not — a skill, frankly, that more adults could be practicing these days. Arguably, this will be the most important thing we can learn from young people now.

Young people know that they have these new skills, and that, honed by the pandemic, they are sharper than those of previous generations. So how might we — and they — deploy these skills to address achievement gaps in the traditional subjects? An obvious place to start would be by asking young people what would help them and their peers close the gap, and then making it a priority to get them what they ask for — problem-solving with them, not for them. We can draw upon their new skills to better work with and learn from each other.

Yes, the report is devastating. At the same time, educators will tell you that intellectual development is best expressed as a curve, steeper at some times than at others. It may be that pandemic switchbacks can be turned into shortcuts — both to get students back on the road to traditional success and to give them access to new heights in knowledge areas we don’t even test yet.

The strengths and competencies that young people now have — not just in spite of but because of the pandemic — must be recognized. They are not negligible. They may well be the basis of the next generation’s unique successes. Even as we help young people make up crucial academic ground, we must also create space for them to make their own way to the mountaintop.

Stephanie J. Hull is president and CEO of Girls Inc., the national organization that inspires all girls to be strong, smart and bold.

This story about NAEP scores was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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