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America’s education report card shows we’re failing our most vulnerable students

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Students wait in a hallway to enter their classrooms on the first day back to school at Sunkist Elementary School in Anaheim, Calif., on Aug. 11, 2022.

As soon as the pandemic started, we saw communities and families of color experience disproportionate impacts on their health, jobs, income and education. While other recent reports exploring the depths and intensity of pandemic-related learning loss have focused on the outsized loss suffered by students of color, along with other student groups, the recent release of NAEP’s report on the impact of the last two years is jarring in its overwhelming assessment that we have failed our historically underserved student populations once again.

Known as the nation’s report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is an assessment program led by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). To gauge changes in student performance since the onset of the pandemic, a special administration of the program was conducted among 9-year-old students nationwide. 

From 2020 to 2022, results show a decline in average scores across the board. This includes a 5-point drop in reading, the largest since 1990, and a 7-point drop in mathematics, the first ever recorded in the mathematics category. 

While reviewing the report, some statistics jumped out at me: that Black students experienced a mathematics score drop seven points higher than their white peers; that, despite showing steady gains for the last 20 years prior to the pandemic, Black and Hispanic students’ scores have regressed to where they were in 1999; that students who were already struggling before the pandemic showed the most dramatic declines. 

These results, while concerning, are not surprising. They mirror other recent studies that have found that schools attended by predominantly Black and Hispanic students — which we know tend to have less funding and resources even in the best of times — were more negatively impacted than predominately white schools. 

To me, this data does not show a failure by students but a failure of systems. This evidence of disproportionate impact and widening learning gaps must be the catalyst for states and districts to prioritize creativity and intentionality in academic recovery plans. If nothing else, the pandemic has provided ample opportunity to turn a critical eye on where we were before and where we can go from here.  

But where to start? At the Hunt Institute, we are already supporting short- and long-term solutions with partners across the nation, including the Indiana Department of Education. 

The Indiana Performance and Academic Study, a state-level assessment administered by the department, offered valuable insights into the pandemic’s effects on learning and the road ahead. As the report states, the purpose of the study was “not to identify the cause of academic impact or to compare to historical performance,” but to “identify what supports are necessary to best serve Indiana students.”

The data collected showed that Black, Hispanic, English learner, low-income and special education students experienced impacts rated moderate to significant, as defined by a recovery time up to or greater than a year. The department used that data to inform innovative strategic efforts aimed at making the recovery process as effective and efficient as possible. 

Efforts included working with The Hunt Institute to create work groups consisting of stakeholders from schools, government agencies and community organizations to identify key strategies schools can implement focused on the following: student learning, recruitment and retention of high-quality educators and leaders, and early literacy.  

At the end of 2022, this work will culminate in a report of evidence-based, community-informed recommendations around strategies and actions the Indiana Department of Education can take to best support the success of students in historically underserved groups. 

However, in addition to addressing the immediacy of this pandemic-related learning loss, we must also consider long-term strategies to ensure our systems are built to effectively support all students. 

Research has shown unequivocally that educators of color increase the performance of all students, particularly students of color. Similarly, having school leaders of color creates pathways that lead to better outcomes for students of color as well. In fact, we know that having a diverse educator workforce is a benefit to all students and communities

Through our work supporting the One Million Teachers of Color Campaign, The Hunt Institute and our partners have found, despite varied approaches and policy adaptations, most states are struggling to build educator populations that reflect the racial diversity of their students. To address this issue, we aim to recruit 1 million teachers of color and 30,000 leaders of color to the national workforce over the next 10 years, while also understanding the importance of retaining teachers and leaders of color. 

While these results are alarming, and we should be prepared for more of the same when state-level NAEP results are released in November, all is not lost. We have strategies that can close these gaps — as well as time-sensitive federal relief funding to adopt these approaches — but state and district leaders must also have the urgency, resourcefulness and political will to move this work forward.  

For examples of the kind of bold, creative policymaking this requires, we can look to state leaders like commissioner Margie Vandeven for her work to improve educator recruitment and retention in Missouri; superintendent Tony Thurmond for his leadership in expanding California’s student wraparound supports through community schools; and commissioner Penny Schwinn for her commitment to advancing the evidence-based literacy instruction to improve grade-level reading in Tennessee.

My hope is that one day we will ultimately point to this moment as the motivation for states, districts and schools to reimagine education to serve the needs of every student, eradicating ongoing harmful disparities that ultimately perpetuate inequalities across our communities. 

Javaid Siddiqi, Ph.D. is president and CEO of the Hunt Institute.

Tags Education in the United States Education reform Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education Politics of the United States Racial disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States

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