Student Achievement What the Research Says

How Do Schools Come Back From ‘Catastrophic’ Drops in Math, Reading on NAEP?

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 24, 2022 4 min read
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“Heart-wrenching.” “Catastrophic.” “Scary as all get-out.”

Those were the words experts used on Monday as they weighed in on the severity of the first post-pandemic results of the main Nation’s Report Card, which from 2019 to 2022 showed the largest deterioration in math achievement on record in the assessment—5 points in grade 4 and 8 points in grade 8—and a smaller but still severe 3-point reading slump in the same grades.

One word that no one used to describe the results was “surprising.”

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Image of declining scores in reading and math NAEP.
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“There’s no way of ignoring the crisis condition. And most disheartening is the fact that kids that were in crisis prior to the pandemic are in deeper crisis today, with some exceptions,” said Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified school district—the only district of the 26 participants in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment to show improvement in reading this year, in 8th grade.

National education leaders and policy experts gathered at the Education Department’s “NAEP Day” symposium in Washington Monday to discuss how K-12 can change to help students regain ground.

Tom Kane, an education and economics professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and faculty director at the Center for Education Policy Research, said the magnitude of learning loss is too large to counter with individual programs. He noted, for example, that the size of Baltimore’s dip in 8th grade math, 21 points on a 500-point scale, is roughly the inverse of the effect of providing high-dose tutoring to every student in the district, not just the bottom 5 percent or 10 percent.

Kane argued that districts need to develop comprehensive improvement plans that use interventions aligned with the number of students needing them, and then monitor the plan to make sure students actually use them.

“I haven’t seen a single district’s plan that if we were to multiply—OK, what percentage of kids are getting tutors, what percentage of kids are going to summer school—if we were to do that math, it would add up to [make up for] the magnitude of loss that we’ve seen,” Kane said. “The sooner we do [more systemic interventions], I think the better off students will be.”

Beyond the academic disruptions to schools and the economic and mental health damage to students and their families during the last three years, the pandemic accelerated existing problems, particularly for students who were already disadvantaged or struggling in school.

“I can’t speak to other states, but I can speak to Virginia,” said the state’s education Commissioner Aimee Guidera, noting that the Old Dominion saw some of the biggest declines among states. “This is heart-wrenching, this is catastrophic, this is completely game-changing. We are on the cusp of losing an entire generation of children and we are taking it very seriously.”

Carvalho said he believes urban districts generally—and his own Los Angeles district in particular—academically weathered the pandemic a little better than the nation as a whole because many were already prepared for virtual instruction when pandemic lockdowns forced schools to close in 2020.

“Urban America probably pivoted in the pandemic towards more-effective levels of connectivity, engagement, and attendance, because additional work had been done prior to the pandemic in terms of one-to-one empowerment,” he said.

He suggested state and district leaders seek out better-performing peers with similar demographics or resources, to find ways to improve.

Carey Wright, former Mississippi state education chief, agreed with Carvalho’s advice.

“Behind every data point is a face, and if you don’t know who that face is, you’re missing the boat. Because there is not a one size fits all for African American children. There’s not a one size fits all for students with disabilities,” Wright added. “You’ve got to drill down to that individual child. And that’s where your state data and district data really can come to the fore. Teachers and leaders need to be gathering around tables right now, data charts in front of them, identifying children that are in need of service.”

More funding sought

Harvard’s Kane made a case for targeting spending to help students recover lost academic ground.

“If these 8th grade NAEP scores, if this [8-point decline in math] loss were to become permanent for students, that would represent about a 1.6 percent decline in incomes later in life,” he said. “Added up across 48 million kids in K-12 education, it’s almost a trillion dollars. So unless we figure out ways to close these gaps—and fortunately school districts have a lot of resources right now from the federal government to help with this catch up—unless we use that money to effectively catch up over the next couple of years, there will be dramatic consequences for students.”

One recent analysis of pandemic-era learning loss by the nonprofit assessment group NWEA estimates it will take a minimum of three more years to catch up elementary students from the disruption, and potentially much more time for secondary students, who have so far shown less of a bounce-back from the pandemic.

“That timeline extends past when federal recovery dollars will be available to schools, so urgency really should be at the top of everyone’s mind,” said Karyn Lewis, the director of the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA.

But Kane cautioned that school and district leaders should not try to downplay the academic declines to parents, as recent surveys suggest 9 out of 10 parents believe their child is performing above grade level, even after the pandemic.

“It’s up to school leaders, teachers, but also superintendents and state commissioners to be honest with parents about where we are,” Kane said. “It is going to be really hard to ask for the hard things that we’re going to need to do if parents seem to think that everything is fine.”

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