Q: Is it really that sad?
Answer: One could reasonably argue that being back to where we were in 2000 is not so bad. Many children born 30 years ago, who would have been about 9 years old then, are today educated adults and leading good lives.
But it is alarming that the lowest achieving students in our schools lost the most ground between 2020 and 2022. Students in the bottom 10 percent of achievement are four to five times more likely to fail than students in the top 10 percent. In math, for example, it’s a 12-point drop versus a three-point drop.
If these children don’t catch up, they risk not learning to read well enough to work in our economy or dropping out of high school because they can’t pass minimum math requirements. Based on another set of test scores during the pandemic, consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated that the current generation of undereducated students could reduce the size of the U.S. economy by $128 billion to $188 billion a year.
Q: How can student achievement across the country take such a hit if we report in July 2022 that learning has returned to normal? Was the previous report wrong?
Answer: Both reports compatible Show each other and around Student test scores decline uniformly. The Department of Education’s latest report reflects just two snapshots of NAEP test scores: one taken in early 2020 before the pandemic and one taken in early 2022. Between these two periods, the achievement of 9-year-olds declined
The assessment agency NWEA measures children two to three times a year using a test called the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, which is taken by millions of elementary and middle school students across the country each year. MAP scores declined dramatically in 2020–21 and then began to rebound slightly in 2021–22 for many but not all children. Students at every grade level are far behind where they were before the pandemic, but they’re not getting worse.
I liken it to the difference between a quarterly and an annual financial report. A company may earn less today than it did two years ago, but a quarterly report will show more detailed ups and downs. NWEA’s breakdown shows that most academic declines occurred in 2020 and 2021, but not as much in 2022. The Department of Education’s NAEP report cannot pinpoint the exact timing of the slide between 2000 and 2022.
Question: So what is the harm in learning?
Answer: The students did not lag behind. It is not as if individual children knew how to read and then stopped being able to read. The NAEP test suggests and the MAP test directly documents that children tend to do better in reading and math during the pandemic. But students have missed hours of instruction for many reasons: family tragedies, closed schools, teachers out with Covid, inefficient remote instruction. So students learned less than usual.
My best analogy, which I’ve used before, is a cross-country road trip. Imagine students traveling 55 miles per hour, run out of gas and start walking instead. Now they’re back in their cars and humming again at 55 miles per hour, NWEA reports. Some are traveling at 60 miles an hour, catching up a bit, but they’re still a long way from the destination they could have reached if they hadn’t run out of gas.
It is this distance from the destination that educators are describing when they talk about learning loss. Some people like to call this problem “missed learning” or “lost learning”. Whatever you call it, it means today’s 9-year-olds — or third- and fourth-graders — can’t read and multiply like 9-year-olds 10 years ago.
Q: How come scores are declining nationally, but not in urban or rural areas?
Answer: In mathematics, it is a simple story. Everyone’s down. High achievers and low achievers with black, white, and Hispanic students. City, suburban and country students all posted lower math scores.
But in reading, test scores in urban school districts did not decline between 2020 and 2022. They remained unchanged in rural districts and throughout the West.
I spoke with Grady Wilburn, a statistician in the evaluation division of the National Center for Education Statistics, who drilled the data with me. The racial or income composition of these regions did not change significantly between 2020 and 2022, which may explain why reading achievement remained stable. Hypothetically, if cities had gentrified during the pandemic, higher-income students would have had higher test scores and could have masked the decline in scores. But it 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 in 2020 before the pandemic hit. Also among white inner-city students, scores were unchanged among Hispanic inner-city students and inner-city students who are poor enough to qualify for free lunch. In rural areas, both black and Hispanic students remained steady, but white students declined slightly in rural areas.
“We were also shocked by these numbers,” Wilburn said. “Our commissioner says perhaps this is an area where researchers should dive, to better understand what urban and rural communities have done.”
Meanwhile, scores for black, white, Hispanic and free-lunch eligible students in suburbs as well as small towns have declined sharply during the pandemic. This means that the national decline in test scores was primarily driven by suburban 9-year-olds.
One possibility is that urban and rural families read more at home. Perhaps siblings read each other. Another possibility is that suburban schools provide a superior education for students that, in normal times, is very effective in teaching young elementary school children to read well. When school days were disrupted during the pandemic, student achievement suffered even more. The more effective schools are, the more students may suffer when they get less.
Q: Can we tell from this NAEP report whether school closures and remote instruction are to blame?
Answer: No. But the fact that city schools, where students may miss longer days in person, remained steady in reading (see above) is a sign that remote learning wasn’t always so detrimental. Students from suburbs and small towns, who tend to spend more days in private, fared worse.
NAEP tests were accompanied by a student survey, which asked students if they had learned remotely at least once during the 2020-21 school year. But it didn’t count the number of remote days for 9-year-old children, so it’s impossible to say whether more remote school days lead to worse outcomes.
A separate analysis of NWEA’s MAP scores released in May 2022 found that students who learned remotely lost more ground. This indicates that distance instruction was a primary driver of widening achievement gaps between rich and poor and students of color and white.
A more detailed report from the Department of Education on student achievement during the pandemic is expected in October. It will list state achievement scores for fourth- and eighth-graders on another NAEP test. Hopefully, together we can unravel more of these knots.