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We finally have the long-feared answer to the question about just how dire pandemic learning loss was: Even worse than anticipated, at least for many nine-year-old students.

That’s why we’re moving onto the next one, which matters enormously for the health of our public education system: What can schools, parents and educators across the country do to help students recover?

Our quest to look ahead follows this week’s release of scores on what is known as the nation’s report card – the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Dismal but not unexpected findings included the first-ever drop in math scores (seven points) for nine-year-old students, along with the steepest drop (five points) in reading scores since the 1980s.

Translation: Two years of Covid-related shutdowns and interruptions erased 20 years of educational progress.

And while declines were spread among all income levels and races (white, Black, and Hispanic students all saw drops in reading and math scores) and students in every region except the West fell in reading, the scores plunged far lower among the lowest-performing students – a fact not lost on educators who have long blamed inequities in resources among school systems. (All of the results are available here.)

In the months to come, we’ll be looking at various ways schools attempt to address the declines in reading and math and help students catch up. We want to hear your story ideas and welcome opinion pieces about efforts to get them back on track.

“Due to inequitable and unjust school systems, students who are the most underserved continue to struggle academically both before and during the pandemic,” Denise Forte, interim CEO of The Education Trust, said in a statement on Thursday.

The scores released this week assess basic skills among nine-year-olds, comparing that age group over long periods of time. The more complex spectrum of NAEP results, encompassing 4th and 8th graders in each state in the nation, won’t be released until later this fall. But convincing data on nine-year-olds’ test performances quickly heightened concerns about what schools can do to help students catch up once they are all back learning in person.

In our own reporting about the pandemic, The Hechinger Report has documented an array of factors contributing to learning loss, along with a decline in college readiness and an increase in mental health problems.  Educators have also cited school violence and staffing shortages.And some parents of children with special needs are suing school systems for failing to provide services to their children when schools were closed.

Related: An oral history of year three of pandemic schooling

Yet we also know that long-term Covid closures and decisions made amid clouds of uncertainty and fear surrounding the pandemic sent millions of students to remote learning, and in doing so may have sent families away from public schools, as evidenced by steep drops in enrollment in New York City and other districts.

“I very much understand the perspective of people who feel betrayed by public schools, wherever they’re coming from politically,” Anya Kamenetz, a former Hechinger Report columnist and NPR reporter and the author of a new book about pandemic learning loss, “The Stolen Year,” said in a recent interview with LA School Report. “There’s been such a fraying of the consensus around what is really our major piece of social infrastructure for families.”

And while the latest test scores are already setting off a fresh round of finger pointing, we hope to focus our efforts in the coming months on various ways schools are attempting to address the declines and help students catch up. The Hechinger Report wants to hear your story ideas and opinions about efforts to get them back on track.

“Decision-makers at all levels have not done nearly enough to address the long-standing resource inequities that prohibit Black, Latino, and students from low-income backgrounds from reaching their full academic potential.”

Denise Forte, interim CEO, The Education Trust

School is far more than student performance on tests, but the latest sobering NAEP declines led to a fresh round of alarm bells and observations of ways the scores exacerbate longstanding trends.

Covid “shocked American education and stunted the academic growth of this age group,” Peggy Carr, who heads the National Center for Education Statistics, told reporters during a briefing Wednesday, adding that while gaps between high and lower performers were growing before the pandemic, students at the bottom are dropping faster now.

“These are some of the largest declines we have observed in a single assessment cycle in 50 years of the NAEP program,” Daniel McGrath, the acting NCES associate commissioner, said in releasing the scores. “Students in 2022 are performing at a level last seen two decades ago.”

Related: Pace of learning back to normal during the 2021-22 pandemic school year but student achievement lags far behind

Michael Hartney, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a Hoover fellow and an assistant professor at Boston College, placed blame on educators and others who fought to keep schools closed for safety reasons.

“This was a man-made disaster, not an inevitable consequence of COVID,” Hartney, whose bookHow Policies Make Interest Groups: Governments, Unions, and American Education will be published this fall, said in a statement. “Those who have been fighting to reopen schools since Fall 2020 knew that school was essential, that children faced the lowest risk of severe illness, and that children faced the most severe consequences of the prolonged shutdown. The children who have thrived are those who had the opportunity to attend school in person.”

Tensions over the safety of returning to school during the pandemic often put teachers unions at odds with politicians and parents, so it’s no surprise that Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was quick to point out the key role teachers will play in any recovery.

“These scores reiterate the vital importance of this school year to help students recover and thrive,” Weingarten said in a statement. “This is a year to accelerate learning by rebuilding relationships, focusing on the basics and investing in our public schools. Educators want what kids and communities need – from reading and math, to social-emotional support, to pathways to careers and colleges – and we are redoubling our efforts to meet children’s needs, deal with teacher shortages and fulfill the purpose, promise and potential of public education.”

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, for his part, put partial blame on the impact he said President Donald Trump’s “mismanagement of the pandemic …has had on our children’s progress and academic wellbeing.”

What matters next, though, is what happens in after-school and tutoring programs, in homes and in classrooms.

“We are encouraged that districts we’ve surveyed will continue to prioritize investments in expanding summer learning and enrichment offerings, adding specialist staff such as mental health personnel and reading specialists, and investing in high-quality instructional materials and curriculum,” Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, said in a statement.

Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told me he wishes – but doubts – that school systems would go even further. 

“The common wisdom is that kids lost a huge amount of instructional time, so we need to find a way to give it back to them,” Petrilli said, adding, “Here’s the caveat: No one is willing to make the most dramatic investment in extra time, which would be to have a whole lot of kids do a whole extra year of school to catch up. “

More urgently needed is that lifelong solution to a lot more than education, the one that requires “showing up.” And that’s one we can’t predict until public school students are back in person and enrollment numbers are released.

We will be watching closely.

This story about NAEP scores post-pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Jill Barshay contributed to this report.  Sign up for our weekly newsletters.

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Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

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  1. I am so over it! Teachers, unions, school boards, and those in the Biden administration who fought school reopenings should be sued. Their negligence and downright disregard for all students but especially low-income students violated student and parent rights. I can only hope that not only are they sued but it becomes a class-action lawsuit. It makes me absolutely sick.

  2. Like ACT & SAT, NAEP is an acdemic chievement test and a waste of time asd money.

    1] Test scores are trivial predictors of any and all later in life successes, accounting for at best about 5% of the variance. That’s statistical talk. In plain English, 95% of what you will accomplish in your life has nothing at all to do with your test scores. Better to focus on the 95% and forget the 5%.

    2] 1,800 colleges have stopped using test scores for admissions, This is a recent reform. The first results are now coming in– not testing kids to admit them to college raised the academic performance of the college’s students. Why is that? Its because college doesn’t need a lot of smarts. As one of by professors put it, “we are not here to make you smart. We are here to see if you can work independently under pressure.” College ‘works’ because a college degree is certification that you can work hard under pressure, and that’s what most jobs require, not smarts ( high test scores).

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