There is nothing good to say about the newly released national reading and math test scores for fourth and eighth graders, which show significant declines in the vast majority of states as a result of the pandemic.
“The results … are appalling, unacceptable and a reminder of the impact this pandemic has had on our learners,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said after the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released on Sunday.
The findings highlight the dangers of complacency about how our public school systems serve K-12 students — particularly Black students and students from other vulnerable communities.
The results… are appalling, unacceptable and a reminder of the impact this pandemic has had on our learners.
– Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on the NAEP national certificate
Reactions to the NAEP results, however, point to another danger: the danger of using the results to justify school policies made for ideological reasons and based on data that is by default incomplete and confusing.
For example, here is the Republican governor of Florida. Ron DeSantis, a staunch opponent of public health measures to combat the pandemic, crowed on Twitter that his state’s NAEP results “prove it we made the right decision‘ to keep the schools open.
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DeSantis was echoed by Brit Hume, political scientist at Fox Newswho tweeted that the results were “a consequence of school closures, which many have warned would have just that effect.”
Not so fast guys.
“There’s a tremendous amount that we don’t understand,” says Emily Oster, an expert in health economics and statistics at Brown University. “This is not a one-factorial case.” However, Oster and colleagues have compiled evidence that suggests students with more face-to-face instruction performed better.
In many ways, the NAEP scores are ambiguous about the impact of distance and face-to-face learning, and in some respects contradictory. This is not surprising given the multiple impacts of the COVID pandemic on all of society, from disruptions at the household level to the broader community.
As of June 30, 2021, more than 140,000 children have lost a parent or other significant other, according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — “a hidden and ongoing secondary tragedy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the CDC said .
Let’s take a look at what the NAEP national testimony shows.
Since Govt. DeSantis struggled to declare victory, let’s compare his state’s record to California’s. The two states couldn’t be further apart in their approach to schooling during the pandemic. As my colleague Paloma Esquivel reported, in California the vast majority of schools were closed by spring 2021; Schools in Florida could reopen in fall 2020.
“By the fall of 2020, it was pretty clear that schools weren’t places with significant COVID spread, so it was possible to open them up,” Oster said. “Keeping schools closed beyond this point was understandable as it was a very complicated time, but from a data perspective I don’t think it was necessary.”
Oster’s figures show that in the 2020-21 school year, California schoolchildren spent more than 71% of their days in “virtual instruction” (i.e. distance learning) and the remainder in full face-to-face instruction (about 6.8% of their days) or “hybrid” -Teaching (21.8%). In Florida, 97% of student days were entirely in-person and the remainder remote.
Overall, the stats were nothing special. Both states have seen percentage declines in three of the four categories (fourth- and eighth-grade literacy) from 2019, before the pandemic, through this year.
But overall, California fared better than Florida. In eighth grade reading, California showed no change since 2019, but students in Florida’s proficiency fell four percentage points.
Florida’s scores in fourth- and eighth-grade math were one percentage point worse than California’s. California fourth graders’ reading scores fell two points, and Florida stayed the same.
Overall averages showed that California students lost five percentage points in math since 2019, while students from Florida lost six points. In reading, the California students lost one point and the Florida students lost two.
Other states that reopened schools relatively quickly also underperformed significantly, including Kansas, Maine and Idaho in reading and Kansas, Maine, Mississippi and Idaho in math.
The data generally shows California and Hawaii as outliers in their results, showing declines significantly less than the national average, despite having the strictest school closure policies in the country.
This implies the limits of the close link between student performance and school closures. One factor is the effort that some states, including California, have put into recovery programs during the pandemic and after it abated. The state provided nearly $24 billion for tutoring, extended summer school, and other educational assistance.
One trend that cannot be ignored is the persistent underperformance of Black, Hispanic, low-income, and other historically underserved students. As reported by The Times, 84% of black students and 79% of Latino and low-income students did not meet state math standards in 2022, a larger deficit than that of white students or the student population as a whole.
The NAEP results show that the gap between white students and black, Hispanic and low-income students has widened during the pandemic.
The pandemic-era record should not hide the fact that performance in American education was dismal even before the pandemic. Nationwide, about a third of students met competency standards in math and reading in 2019.
There is little evidence that reforms such as charter schools are an answer; Average scores in math, reading and science in charter schools are worse than in conventional public schools, according to the NAEP report card, and the gap widens from fourth grade through eighth grade to 12th grade.
Another trend that has intensified since the emergence of the pandemic is the pressure on teachers, who have left the profession by the hundreds of thousands.
Usually underpaid for the importance society places on their role in preparing American youth for adulthood, teachers in some states are facing increased scrutiny of their teaching methods and curriculum.
This is particularly notable in the Red States, where conservatives have tried to make issues like “critical race theory” and gender studies too partisan.
As recently as Monday, during a debate with his Democratic opponent Charlie Crist, DeSantis took a stab at how history is taught in public schools and called for “accurate history” — essentially ignoring the racial elements of America’s founding.
Adding political litmus tests to public school instruction or boasting about pandemic policies that may or may not have had something to do with student achievement will not solve America’s persistent lack of education.
They will only worsen the educational environment for students and teachers alike. That’s the path we’re on.