Yes, kids are behind, and the most vulnerable were hit hardest. But we now have more evidence that schools work, and they can help all kids recover.
If you’re one of the many parents who had to try and keep track of links, passwords, headphones and chargers during those early days of online learning, you could probably tell the experiment wasn’t going to go well. Watching your kids zone out during Zoom meetings, it didn’t take a master’s degree in education to understand that they just weren’t learning as much as they did in person at school.
Now, the results — in terms of kids’ academic achievement — are coming in, and the news isn’t good.
Nationally, test scores dropped significantly in math and reading from 2020 to 2022. Kids who got less in-person schooling fared worse, as did Black children and children who had lower achievement to begin with.
Here’s what parents should know about the drop — and how to help their kids catch up.
How much ground was lost during the pandemic?
This year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the “Nation’s Report Card,” administered its long-term trend assessment to 7,400 9-year-olds in 410 schools. The scores reveal an average drop of 5 points in reading and 7 points in math since 2020, the last time the test was given.
This is the largest drop in reading scores on the NAEP since 1990, and it’s the first time math scores have fallen since the test was first administered in 1973.
The dip became progressively steeper the lower the student scored. In reading, students scoring in the top 10% of test takers saw their scores decline an average of 2 points, whereas kids whose scores landed them in the bottom 10% saw an average drop of 10 points. Similarly, in math, kids in the top 10% saw their scores drop an average of 3 points, while the bottom 10% dropped an average of 12 points.
Not surprisingly, higher-scoring students reported more access to online learning resources like laptops and high-speed internet, as well as greater confidence in their ability to learn remotely.
When broken down by race and ethnicity, Black, white and Hispanic students all saw a 6-point dip in reading scores. But in math, Black students’ scores went down an average of 13 points, compared to 5 points for white students and 8 points for Hispanic students.
Test scores from individual states tell a similar story, with a significant drop in the number of students meeting academic benchmarks.
In an analysis of third-grade through eighth-grade test scores from 11 states, economist and bestselling parenting writer Emily Oster and her co-authors found an average decline of 12.8 percentage points in the pass rate on math tests, and an average decline of 6.8 percentage points for English Language Arts.
Recently released data from Oregon shows that 43.6% of students passed ELA exams this year and 30.4% passed in math, compared to pass rates of 53.4% and 39.4% in 2019, respectively.
It’s important to note that the data vary quite a bit between states.
What factors contributed to the decline in test scores?
The data validate what most parents suspected: In-person school is more effective for kids than remote learning.
Oster and her co-authors found that the less in-person learning students had, the more their test scores declined.
“These learning losses did happen, and they were larger in areas where school was remote,” Oster told HuffPost. “If parents are unsure about the value of in-person schooling for their children, this shows its value clearly.”
In comparing how many students passed these tests within small geographical areas, they found that districts with fully remote schooling lost an additional 13 points in their math exam pass rates compared to districts that had in-person schooling. In reading, there was an additional 8-point loss in pass rates.
These results, Oster said, “highlight the enormous value of in-person interaction in schools.”
They “may also illustrate the importance of focus and of teachers and schools as places of safety and security,” she said. “It’s difficult to know how much of the issue with remote school was simply that children were not there or not able to be fully present.”
With students now back in their school buildings, there are already hopeful signs of reversing this loss. Test scores are not back to where they were in 2019, but they are rising.
“Between the end of 2021 and end of 2022 we have seen — depending on the dataset — something like a third to two-thirds of the test score losses recovered,” Oster said.
“This is good news, in the sense of being some recovery,” she added. “It suggests there is far to go.”
Where do we go from here?
Shael Polakow-Suransky served as New York City schools’ senior deputy chancellor before becoming president of the Bank Street College of Education in 2014.
Of the pandemic dip in test scores, he said that “if every institution in our society was damaged by the pandemic, we shouldn’t be surprised and be too panicked.”
“The things we need to do are clear,” he said. “We need to reconnect kids and families to schools.”
Some schools are setting up tutoring programs with federal aid dollars to help kids catch up, and these may be effective, Polakow-Suransky believes. But “there’s no substitute for the classroom going well.”
“If schools are set up in a way that kids love to be there and are engaged, they are going to learn, [and to] catch up,” he said.
A parent might reasonably assume that if a child is struggling in reading and math, they should be spending more time reading and doing math, not talking about their feelings or playing games with their peers.
But learning doesn’t work like a medicine, where you can simply increase the dose. The right conditions must be carefully cultivated by a skilled teacher.
It was these interpersonal interactions with adults and peers — what we now all know as “social-emotional learning” — that children lacked when school went online, and it is these relationships that can supply the foundation of their academic growth now.
When we focus on how far behind kids are, or what they can’t do, we risk losing perspective, Polakow-Suransky said.
Learning loss isn’t the whole story of the pandemic. Polakow-Suransky suggests we also ask: “What they did learn during this period that they might not have [otherwise], and what strengths are they bringing to the table?”
To succeed academically, students “need to be in a trusting environment, interested in what’s happening in school, [and] the work needs to be both rigorous and challenging, and also very engaging,” he said.
If your child is struggling in school in the wake of the pandemic, remember that they’re not alone — as the data shows, plenty of other kids are in the same boat. Look for skill-building activities outside of school that are interesting and engaging, like reading books kids select themselves, or doing math while shopping or cooking. Emphasize what your child does well, in addition to encouraging them to practice in areas where they’re weak.
It’s always worth checking in with your child’s teacher if you have concerns, or if you’re considering hiring a tutor. Building a strong, collaborative relationship with their teacher will ultimately help your child learn.
“They need to feel that people there really know them and care about them and are listening to them,” Polakow-Suransky said. “There are no shortcuts.”
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