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National test score plunge illustrates pandemic’s impact on education

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Fourth-grade math scores fell almost twice as much for Black and Hispanic students as for white students, according to the latest results on the Nation’s Report Card, illustrating the pandemic’s outsize impact on minorities in the classroom.

Scores declined across the board between 2019 and 2022 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, grim confirmation of a broad erosion in student achievement during two years of COVID-19. Performance dropped in reading and math, in grades four and eight. But the decline was worse in math, the largest ever recorded in half a century of federal testing.

“What we’re really looking at, it’s not something that the school districts did, it’s not something the education community did. It’s something the pandemic did,” said Ray Hart, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools. “We’ll just have to work our way out of it.”

Across all public schools, fourth-grade math scores dropped by 8 points for Black students between 2019 and 2022, from 224 to 216 on a 500-point scale. Scores dipped by 7 points for Hispanics, from 231 to 224. Performance among white students started higher and dropped less, from 249 to 245.

Educators were bracing for bad news from the national test. Several studies have documented declining student achievement during the pandemic, with greater losses among Black and Hispanic students and those in high-poverty schools.

The pandemic presented a nightmare scenario, forcing schools to shutter in the middle of the spring semester of 2020, driving millions of teachers into haphazard experiments in remote learning.

“We’re talking about teaching complicated material through virtual instruction,” said Amanda Goodwin, an associate professor of literacy, language and culture at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. “We had never done virtual instruction at that scale.”

Remote instruction endured through much of the 2020-21 academic year in parts of the nation, while other districts returned to classroom study, weighing competing interests of education and public health.

The latest scores show particularly steep declines among Black and Hispanic students in elementary math. Decades of research has shown parents do a better job supplementing reading instruction at home, while most of the burden for math teaching falls on math teachers.

Among lower-performing students, those in greatest need of tutoring and summer school, the pandemic widened long-standing racial disparities.

Between 2019 and 2022, the share of Black students in public schools performing “below basic” in fourth-grade math on the national assessment rose from 35 percent to 46 percent. The share of Hispanics rated “below basic” rose from 27 percent to 37 percent. Among whites, the share scoring at the lowest performance level rose just 3 points, from 12 percent to 15 percent.

“The results confirm what educators have been sounding the alarm about for more than two years: the pandemic exacerbated existing gaps in opportunity and learning experiences between white students and students of color, as well as between well-funded schools and chronically underfunded ones,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association.

White, Black and Hispanic students all faltered in eighth-grade math, but without the same racial disparities seen in grade four. Students of all races fared better in reading. Eighth-grade reading scores for Black and Hispanic students declined by just 1 point in public schools, while white students’s scores fell by 4 points. An achievement gap remains, but it has narrowed.

Pandemic learning losses echo generations of research on “summer slide,” a well-documented (if disputed) decline in test scores among disadvantaged students over summer break. Researchers theorize the gap opens because less-advantaged students have less access to reading materials, educational outings and quiet study space during vacation months.

To some extent, the pandemic functioned like one long summer slide. A recent Harvard study found that Black and Hispanic students lost more learning than white ones because, on average, they endured longer stretches of remote learning. Students in high-poverty schools lost roughly half a year of academic growth during the pandemic.

Education leaders cautioned against drawing partisan conclusions from the new scores. Yet, the Harvard study found that students performed better through the pandemic in states that kept classrooms open longer, such as Texas and Florida. Students fared worse in states that spent more time in remote instruction, including California and Illinois.

In California, where political leaders took flak for keeping schools closed, the share of Black students performing “below basic” in fourth-grade math on the latest assessment rose from 33 percent in 2019 to 51 percent in 2022. The share of Hispanic learners scoring below basic rose from 34 percent to 44 percent.

In Florida, where leaders took flak for keeping schools open, Black and Hispanic students fared somewhat better. The share of Hispanic students scoring below basic in fourth-grade math rose from 15 percent in 2019 to 22 percent in 2022. The share of Black students scoring below basic rose from 23 percent to 34 percent.

Reversing the slide, experts say, means playing catch-up for months of lost instruction. That could mean hundreds of hours of intensive tutoring, or weeks of summer school, or longer school days.

“I think high-intensity tutoring is one of the most proven approaches,” said Megan Kuhfeld, a senior research scientist at NWEA, a nonprofit that tests schoolchildren globally. “It’s also really expensive. You basically need one teacher for every two or three students.”

President Biden directed $122 billion in American Rescue Plan funds to reopening schools and reversing learning losses. But those funds end in 2024, and that may not be enough time for districts to access it.

“Districts have recovery plans, but the pandemic has made it hard for them to put them into place,” Kuhfeld said. “This is the first year when things are, knock on wood, actually back to normal.”

Updated 9:28 a.m.

Tags coronavirus school closures COVID-19 pandemic

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