Recovering From Learning Loss:Test scores plummet; bold plans are needed

Yesterday’s headlines screamed “Pandemic Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading.” Results from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, also known as the NAEP, found that reading and math scores of a randomized sample of 9-year olds dropped to levels from two decades ago. Students of color experienced the largest drop in scores – black students lost 13 points in math, while white students lost 5 points. 

Pre-pandemic, reading and math test scores were nothing to write home about in this country. Reading instruction and math instruction has sucked for a long time; too many kids were not proficient. It’s shameful. But now, things got worse.

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8 thoughts on “Recovering From Learning Loss:Test scores plummet; bold plans are needed

  1. “While the NAEP results do not prove causation — these test results do not prove that school closures, as opposed to other COVID horrors, caused this drop — plenty of other studies do show that students who experienced the least amount of in-person education suffered the worse learning loss. Whatever the cause, test scores dropped, and that’s what is important. ”

    Thank you for this clear statement. I agree that there are other studies that show a relationship between school closures and learning loss and that we should be aware into the future of how significant the effect of closing schools is on the very thing we say they exist for (learning). As you’ve pointed out, to suggest that school closures didn’t matter would be to suggest that school didn’t matter (or at least that it could be replaced with online learning). There might be a few teachers who feel that way, but they should be finding their jobs in online schools where people chose to be online.

    I very much liked Anya Kamanetz’s opinion piece in the WaPost, “School is for Everyone”


  2. One issue that does need to be addressed in data like this is the degree to which the demographics of a school in 2022 or 2023 or 2024 (post-pandemic) might be different than they were in 2019. If students are leaving schools (including ones that were not open in person), the students who left might be more likely to be wealthier/with more highly educated parents, . . . If so, the demographics of the tested population might have changed in the comparisons being made. In our district, elementary schools in affluent areas are loosing the most students in the coming academic year (with choices to go to private school, move out of the area, . . . .).

    That explanation would still mean that we need to address the losses for the “left-behinds”, but it wouldn’t mean that they necessarily learned less than they would have, just that those students made up a greater proportion of the school.

    The pattern of losses suggest to me that we really have to focus on individual children and groups of children because I think that part of what will be damaging going forward is the differences. The private school I know said their kids weren’t showing any learning losses while the school was physically closed (it was closed nearly as long as the public schools), because significant investments in online education were made and parents were able to provide the scaffolding that was needed even with the best virtual resources.


    1. bj said
      ” parents were able to provide the scaffolding that was needed even with the best virtual resources.”

      This is absolutely true. During our lockdowns, friends with younger kids were saying that a parent was spending 4 hours a day working with their kids on the online learning. Effectively, the child had one-on-one tuition for a large part of their ‘school’ day. It’s not surprising that those kids showed no learning losses. They were getting a *better* ratio of personal tuition than they would get in class.

      Whereas, kids without good online access, or high quality online education, or motivated and educated parents – didn’t have any of this support, and suffered corresponding learning losses.


  3. I still think that repeating a year, is the best way of catching large groups of kids up.
    The reality is, that the schools don’t have the teachers/tutors to do one-on-one – and don’t really have the expertise either. But they can just repeat 3rd grade (or whatever class), for whichever students aren’t educationally ready for 4th grade. Test them at the beginning of the year (which is, I think, now, for you guys), and sort them into educational bands, rather than age ones.
    It may not be the ‘best’ solution – but it is achievable, and may be the best one available.
    To make it more palatable for parents, you can call it a Grade 3-4 class (i.e. really teaching Grade 3, but with Grade 4 age students).
    I’d suggest doing it for 1-2 years. If a kid hasn’t caught up by then, the reality is that (absent intensive one-on-one coaching – only available to the UMC), they’re not going to do so, in school.
    Of course, the easiest solution is ‘do nothing’ – and just wait for the problem cohort to age out of school. Poorly performing teachers and schools will use ‘Covid’ lockdown as an excuse for failing educational cohorts for the next 10 years.


  4. I’ve been hearing more and more ed leaders revisiting the idea of leaving students back a year. For a while, it has been out of vogue. School districts also hate having to pay for an extra of education for students, so they would rather push students through. But I am hearing more chit-chat about that option.

    I do think you’re right. What’s really going to happen is nothing. The problem cohort will age out and nobody cares. Just awful.


    1. I was reading that some States have legislated that parents can require the school to hold a child back for a year.

      Schools are resisting (I’m quite sure you are right about why) – but if parents insist, they have no option.

      The problem is that it’s pretty much only UMC parents who will be aware of this, and insist that the kid repeat a grade.
      Lower socio-economic and/or minority group parents will either not know the possibility exists, or will ‘trust’ the school to do what’s best for their kid (ha! – we all know how that works out).

      My son has a few friends who are either a ‘grade ahead’ or a ‘grade behind’ their calendar age. It hasn’t really impacted on their friendship. By the time they’re in middle or high school – they’re unlikely to be in the same actual class – so being a different grade isn’t a big barrier. Shifting schools (middle to high) is a bit of a barrier – but they just pick up the friendship (as in hang out at break times) a year later. Socially, it’s been a non-event. Really, the different timing of puberty (anywhere from 11 to 14 for boys in my son’s friendship group) has been a bigger barrier – sometimes they just grow at different rates – not just physically.


  5. I think the educational logic behind not holding kids back is that if the class wasn’t working the first time for the child, and if nothing is different the benefit of repeating the class might not be significant (and there are the negatives).

    But this pandemic related schooling changes are different. Schools will be different from learning online in a pandemic, potentially with more supports and less illness. Kids who might benefit from repeating the material in those conditions might actually work, and might not have as much negatives associated, if there’s a larger cohort in place in the same situation.

    Of course, if there’s a sufficiently large cohort, presumably the next grade level could also be taught at a lower level, though then the student wouldn’t be offered (or required) to spend another year in school down the road.

    Keeping kids back means the additional costs of more years of education, but at least it wouldn’t require the structural changes of lengthening the school day or year (which are also costly).


  6. I know from the private school world that, pre-pandemic, many parents chose, or were encouraged by schools, to hold their children back a year, especially when changing from public schools to private schools. For example, a local private school had a policy of not allowing children with summer birthdays to apply to remain in the same grade; they had to apply to repeat their public school grade. So if a public school class had children who had turned 6 by December of their first grade year, the private school would have a cutoff of roughly June of that year (and all the children older than that.)

    Now, this is/was often done with an eye to being competitive on high school sports teams. When changing tracks, though, it was often a good idea because the private school peers had had better instruction in math and grammar. It’s very hard to discuss a paragraph in writing class when you have no idea what a subordinate clause is. And then sometime when a child had had a serious illness that wiped out a year of instruction in public school, repeating the grade would only be possible in private school. That last is analogous to the pandemic situation.

    So there isn’t the stigma associated with repeating a grade on the private side. Some children will be fine despite the loss of instruction, some will not.


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