“The Pandemic Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading” was the headline in the New York Times about the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “the nation’s report card.” The scores, from a national sample of nine-year-olds, were sobering. Compared with results from early 2020, just before the Covid-19 lockdown, they showed that third- and fourth-graders had lost ground in math for the first time since nationwide testing of achievement started in the 1970s; reading scores fell by the largest percentage in more than 30 years.
“The declines spanned almost all races and income levels and were markedly worse for the lowest-performing students,” the Times reported. “While top performers in the 90th percentile showed a modest drop — three points in math — students in the bottom 10th percentile dropped by 12 points in math, four times the impact.”
Buried in the sixth paragraph of the Times story was a fleeting reference to research on the “profound effect” of remote learning on low-income, Black, and Hispanic students. That study, carried out at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard and published in May, concluded that “remote instruction was a primary driver of widening achievement gaps.”
The researchers found that “in districts that went remote, achievement growth was lower for all subgroups, but especially for students attending high-poverty schools.” Where learning was in person, “there were still modest losses in achievement, but there was no widening of gaps between high and low-poverty schools.”
In other words, we should be heartened as we watch our children return to school this week. Because “virtual learning” that substitutes screens for personal attention from a live teacher and interaction with other children is a disaster.
Diane Ravitch, one of the most clear-eyed of education policy pundits, wrote about what happened when the pandemic caused children to be stuck in front of computers: “They were bored. They needed to look into the eyes of a teacher who encouraged them to do better, a teacher who explained what they didn’t understand.” She sees the NAEP scores as a wake-up call with this message: “We must treasure our teachers and recognize the vital role they play in educating the next generation.”
And even though the NAEP is considered the gold standard of educational testing, let’s keep in mind that measurement alone does nothing to solve this problem.
Front-page reporting of these results promotes the false idea that scores are all that matter. It distracts us from all that cannot be measured by a standardized test. Our obsession with testing “stifles creative teaching and real learning” and has led many gifted teachers to quit, says education professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige. Covid made things worse.
Let’s hope this latest wake-up call will lead us to treasure teachers and try to understand the challenges they face as they work to rebuild children’s relationships with learning in real life.