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Test score nosedive shows urgent need to get students back on track


Newly released and troubling test scores for the nation’s K-12 students are sending up red flares around the country. They are a warning that public schooling has struck a major obstacle — one that will require a big commitment by school districts and educational leaders to overcome.

The new data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics highlight that math and reading test scores for the nation’s 13-year-old students fell between 2012 and 2020 — for the first time in nearly 50-years. What’s more, the results show a widening achievement gap between the nation’s lowest and highest performers, suggesting that academic supports are not reaching students for whom the system has already been failing to serve.

The report also noted additional concerning findings — such as the decline in 13-year-olds taking algebra and higher percentages of 9- and 13-year-olds who reported that they never or hardly ever read for fun.

Don’t blame the pandemic since the scores reflect student performance just prior to COVID-19. But to be sure, the pandemic has only added to the problems. State assessments conducted this past spring show that student performance has suffered because of pandemic learning conditions and stressors on students and families.

And before the pandemic struck, troubling indicators were also emerging. In 2019, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported declines in reading among fourth and eighth graders, while scores stagnated among U.S. 15-year-olds on the Program for International Student Assessment taken the prior year.

As if we needed any further evidence, the aggregate data, throughout the ongoing pandemic underscore that the nation can’t go back to business as usual.

The results should add jet fuel to the proposition that leaders at all levels must use the opportunity afforded by $189 billion in COVID-19 federal recovery funds targeting education to make the changes that will reverse these troubling declines.

Here are three top priorities for leaders to consider that will help bring about the much-needed educational recovery.

  • Data for educational recovery: A stronger commitment to the use of data to help parents, educators and policymakers track student recovery and align resources to best address students’ academic needs. Simply giving tests is not enough. We must help educators, schools and decision-makers at all levels act on that data and other elements of pandemic recovery like spending and programming.
  • Better instructional materials for teachers: Attention to the widespread adoption, training and use of high-quality instructional materials, to include those that use the science of reading to improve reading instruction. Studies have shown that curricular materials are not rigorous enough in far too many classrooms. Educators must have a greater focus on math achievement with particular attention to students of color and all students experiencing poverty, to include the delivery of algebra at the appropriate time and in a manner that gives those students the best opportunity of success.
  • A focus on the needs of all students: Educators must have a strong focus on the needs of Black and brown students, low-income students and students with disabilities in every decision affecting schools, including specific efforts to accelerate learning, as well as efforts to meet their social and emotional needs.

As historic levels of federal relief funds flow into schools to aid recovery, leaders must ensure the money leads to better outcomes. Given the troubling test scores, it is more important than ever to lay out successful strategies and capture and share them with school districts around the nation. We all share the responsibility for getting every student and every school back on track.

 As soon as possible.

Jim Cowen is executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit focused on promoting the use of high-quality instructional materials to improve student learning.

Tags classroom COVID-19 curriculum Education Jim Cowen K-12 education Pandemic

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