Q: Is it really so tragic?
A: It’s safe to say that it’s not so bad to be back where we were in 2000. Many children born 30 years ago, who would have been around 9 years old at the time, are adults. educated and leading a good life today.
But disturbingly, the lowest performing students in our schools have lost the most ground between 2020 and 2022. Students in the bottom 10% have lost four to five times as much as students in the top 10%. In math, for example, it’s a drop of 12 points versus a drop of three points.
If these kids don’t catch up, they’re much more likely to not learn to read well enough to function in our economy or to drop out of high school because they can’t meet minimum math requirements. Based on another round of plummeting test scores during the pandemic, consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated that the current generation of less-educated students could shrink the size of the US economy by $128 billion. dollars to $188 billion a year.
Q: How can student success across the country be so hard hit if we reported in July 2022 that the pace of learning had returned to normal? Was this previous report wrong?
A: Both reports are consistent with each other and show almost identical declines in student test scores. The Department of Education’s recent report reflects only two snapshots of NAEP test scores: one taken in early 2020 before the pandemic and one in early 2022. Between these two time periods, the achievement of 9-year-olds dropped .
The NWEA assessment organization measures children two to three times during the year using a test called Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, which is taken each year by millions of elementary school students and college across the country. MAP scores dropped dramatically in 2020-21, then started to rebound slightly for many, but not all, kids in 2021-22. Students at every grade level remained far behind where they were before the pandemic, but they were not deteriorating any further.
I compare this to the difference between a quarterly report and an annual report in finance. A company may generate less revenue today than two years ago, but a quarterly report will show more detailed highs and lows. Details from the NWEA show that most of the academic decline occurred in 2020 and 2021, but not as much in 2022. The Ministry of Education’s NAEP report cannot determine the exact timing of the drop between 2000 and 2022.
Q: So is there a learning loss?
A: The students have not regressed. It is not that individual children knew how to read and then ceased to know how to read. The NAEP test implies and the MAP test directly documents that children have continued to improve in reading and math during the pandemic. But students have missed instructional hours for many reasons: family tragedies, schools closed, teachers out with COVID, ineffective distance learning. The students therefore learned less than usual.
My best analogy, which I’ve used before, is a road trip across the country. Imagine the students traveling at 55 miles per hour, running out of gas, and starting to walk instead. According to the NWEA report, they are now back in their cars and purring 55 miles per hour again. Some are going 60 miles an hour, catching up slightly, but still a long way from where they would have been had they not run out of gas.
It is this distance from the destination that educators describe when they talk about learning loss. Some people like to call this problem “missed learning” or “lost learning”. Whatever you call it, that means today’s 9-year-olds – or third and fourth graders – can’t read and multiply as well as 9-year-olds 10 years ago. .
Q: How can scores go down nationwide, but not in cities or rural areas?
A: In math, it’s a simpler story. Everyone deteriorated. High and low performing students, as well as black, white, and Hispanic students. City, suburban and rural students all had lower math scores.
But in reading, test scores in urban school districts did not decline between 2020 and 2022. They also remained unchanged in rural districts and across the West.
I spoke with Grady Wilburn, a statistician in the evaluation division of the National Center for Education Statistics, who dug deep into the data with me. There were no substantial changes in the racial or income composition of these regions between 2020 and 2022 that could explain why reading achievement has remained stable. In theory, if cities had gentrified during the pandemic, higher-income students would have scored higher on tests and could have masked the drop in scores. But that didn’t happen.
We also looked at different combinations of race, income, and geography. Nationally, black students scored six points lower in reading, but in cities, black 9-year-olds scored the same in 2022 as they did before the pandemic in 2020. White students’ scores from city, Hispanic city students and city students who are poor enough to qualify for a free lunch. In rural areas, black and Hispanic students also remained stable, but white students in rural areas deteriorated a bit.
“We were also intrigued by these numbers,” Wilburn said. “Our commissioner said maybe this is a place that researchers should dive into to better understand what urban and rural communities have been able to do.”
Meanwhile, scores for black, white, Hispanic, and free lunch-eligible students in suburbs as well as small towns have all dropped sharply during the pandemic. This means that the national declines in test scores were mainly due to 9-year-olds in the suburbs.
One possibility is that urban and rural families read more at home. Maybe siblings read to each other. Another possibility is that suburban schools provide a vastly superior education to students which, in normal times, is very effective in teaching young elementary students to read well. When school days were interrupted during the pandemic, student achievement suffered further. The more efficient the school, the more students are likely to suffer when they receive less.
Q: Can we tell from this NAEP report if school closures and distance learning are to blame?
A: No. But the fact that schools across the city, where students were most likely to have missed more in-person days, remained flat in reading (see above) is a sign that remote learning hasn’t not always been so detrimental. Suburban and small-town students, who tended to have more in-person days, fared less well.
The NAEP test was accompanied by a student survey, which asked students if they had learned remotely even once during the 2020-21 school year. But he didn’t ask 9-year-olds to count the number of remote days, so it’s impossible to say whether more remote school days led to worse outcomes.
A separate analysis of NWEA MAP scores, released in May 2022, found that students who learned remotely lost significantly more ground. He said distance learning was the biggest driver of widening achievement gaps between rich and poor and between children of color and white students.
A more detailed report from the Ministry of Education on student performance during the pandemic is expected in October. It will list state passing scores for fourth and eighth graders on another NAEP test. Hopefully we can untangle more of these knots together.