The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Plummeting U.S. test scores aren’t a red state vs. blue state thing

A fourth-grade class at Arthur Elementary in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on May 24. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette via AP)

It turns out that all the bitter back-and-forth between red and blue states about how quickly to reopen schools during the covid-19 pandemic was nothing but political theater, as far as test scores are concerned. Student performance suffered across the board, and it could take years to make up the ground we’ve lost.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released Monday, show that the pandemic ushered in a falling tide that lowered all boats. Scores for fourth-graders and eighth-graders in reading declined markedly — and, in math, showed the biggest drop since testing began in 1990 — regardless of what ambitious politicians said or did.

Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, for example, made a big show of reopening their states’ schools in the fall of 2020, with DeSantis going so far as to threaten to withhold funding from school districts that did not comply. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, on the other hand, moved more slowly, conditioning the return to in-person instruction on the level of covid-19 infection in a given county.

But the NAEP report, based on testing this spring, showed that student performance suffered equally despite the different approaches. Math scores for fourth-graders dropped by four points in California, five points in Florida and five points in Texas. For eighth-graders, scores dropped by six points in California, seven points in Florida and seven points in Texas.

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Scores in reading in those three states also moved in lockstep, falling by a point or two. Political posturing might have mattered to governors who’d like to be president someday, but it made no difference to the millions of children in the nation’s schools. From the students’ point of view, there was no “right way” to blunt the impact of the pandemic. All strategies, we now know, were equally futile.

The NAEP results — often called “the nation’s report card” — present a huge challenge to officials at every level, from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on down to every school district superintendent and every elementary and middle school principal. Following modest gains over the past three decades, student performance in reading is back to exactly where it was in 1992. And performance in math, after a hopeful stretch of significant improvement, is back to about what it was 20 years ago.

The pandemic caused math scores to fall more sharply than reading scores. The theory — and it certainly would have been borne out in my household, if I still had school-age children — is that parents were more equipped to help their kids keep on pace in reading than in math.

There are some puzzling findings in the NAEP data. Fourth-graders who were already the lowest performers lost more ground — falling even further behind — during the pandemic, especially in math. That raises the question of whether many of those students have grasped the fundamental principles they will need to survive their math classes in the higher grades.

The story is different, however, for eighth-graders. The top performers and the lowest performers lost ground in equal measure — two or three points in reading, roughly eight points in math. This presents an obvious challenge for high schools across the country: Will this cohort be ready for high school algebra and geometry? Or will some remedial instruction be necessary?

For that matter, how will the nation help our children catch up after what amounted to two lost years in their education? The NAEP report does not provide answers, but it offers a few clues.

Roughly 70 percent of students said they had at least some experience with remote learning during the pandemic. Higher-performing students — those who lost less ground — were significantly more likely than low performers to have full-time access to a computer or tablet; to have high-speed internet access; to have a quiet place to do their homework; to have a teacher available remotely to help them almost every day; and to have an adult help them in person with their schoolwork at least once or twice a week.

Wealthy, highly educated parents are going to do everything in their power to educate their children. Less affluent parents in financially strapped school districts will need federal and state aid to keep up. The last thing this country needs is more inequality.

Another takeaway is clear: These are the education issues we ought to be grappling with, rather than using schools as battlefields for the culture wars.

Enough, already, with the performative outrage about imaginary critical race theory, a handful of transgender students who want to play sports and what pronouns teachers can and cannot use. Our students need to learn reading and math — and they’re losing ground.

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