On Monday, America got a report card, and the results were pretty bad. There were alarming declines in math and reading skills among the country’s fourth and eighth graders, as assessed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has been testing broad samples of elementary-level students since the early 1990s. In this year’s test results, which are calculated as an average from 0 to 500, math scores dropped by five points for fourth graders, lower than all previous assessment years since 2005. Eighth graders’ math scores dropped by a whopping eight points compared with 2019.
Reading scores fared slightly better, with both fourth and eighth graders recording only three-point drops compared with 2019. But for eighth graders, that score was lower than all previous assessment years going back to 1998. Even if you were to dice the scores by state, no single state in the country saw an increase in reading or math scores for either grade—it was all straight declines or no significant changes recorded.
Though test scores are simply one predictor of children’s success, they tend to reflect whether a student will finish high school, succeed in college, and earn a good living. At a national level, test scores can predict economic growth, which means learning loss could quickly become a serious problem not only for individual students, but for the future of the country as a whole.
But even though this year’s NAEP results are alarming, in many ways, they’re not all that surprising. America’s classrooms have gone through cataclysmic changes since 2020 with on-and-off in-person learning, online classes, and mandated quarantines, not to mention the nearly 200,000 children under 18 that have lost a parent or other in-home caregiver to COVID-19. That’s in addition to the severe teacher shortage, driven not just by burnout, but desire for better pay, the politicization of teaching, and high turnover rates.
The federal government tried to remedy the situation by investing $123 billion in American schools, but research has shown at least $700 billion is needed to seriously offset COVID-19–related learning loss.
So where do we go from here? The answers are mixed, with various research suggesting that high-dose tutoring sessions, after-school programs, summer school, and extended school–day and school–year initiatives could help. I spoke with Anya Kamenetz, a former NPR education reporter who has written multiple books on education, including most recently The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now, to talk about how the nation should view these NAEP test scores and what some potential solutions might be.
Ali: Looking at these latest NAEP test scores was your immediate thought “Wow, this is bad,” or was it more expected? And do you think it’s something we can recover from?
Kamenetz: It’s exactly what I expected to see. So I’m not actually shocked, personally, but I also am not in the camp of people who want to wave it away and say, “Oh, we had a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.” I think it’s a big deal and I think that we should be worried, not because of the math grade, but because of what it means about how our kids are doing, what we did for them and what we didn’t do for them.
The other thing is, there is very little precedent in history for kids to make progress at a rate that will get them to where we want them to be. How do we get these scores to not translate into a generation of kids that continues to have depressed high school graduation rates and depressed college-going rates? We had a 20 percent drop in community college admissions since the beginning of the pandemic and it is still falling, and fell again this fall, so we’re seeing that kids aren’t going to college.
Yes, we gave schools a lot of money, but it sunsets in 2024 or 2025, if they get an extra extension, and it’s not enough money. Schools are also not necessarily using it in research-affirmed ways. So how do we not just drift into a future where we are less educated? That’s a disaster. We can’t handle being less educated. Countries don’t do well when they become less educated. So it is a recipe for disaster if we don’t do something of a size, of an energy, of an effort that just hasn’t been done before. I’m not saying we can’t do it—we are America, we went to the moon—but I don’t know if I see that energy. I want to see that energy and I’m not.
The federal government has tried to step in and plump up education funding in order to help address COVID-19 learning loss. Is that the right solution?
I think the most important thing to conceptualize about this is that it’s going to take time. In the beginning of the pandemic, I looked at research on Hurricane Katrina, which closed schools in New Orleans, and it took about two years for those kids to resume their previous trajectory. That was in an atmosphere of a total overhaul of the school conditions. But, another way of saying it’s going to take a lot of money is that it’s going to take a lot of time, and it’s not going to be a one-year or two-year quick fix because we just don’t have any paradigm in academics anywhere for kids like overcoming—this kind of progress. They don’t learn twice as fast. There isn’t like a mode you can switch kids into where they just learn things twice as fast. They catch up over time and they need different things in order to catch up.
This past school year was not necessarily a recovery year [either]. We’ll hopefully see more growth in this current school year and in the next school year, but I definitely agree that enhanced funding is going to be required over many years in order to get kids back on the learning trajectory that we want them to be on.
Tutoring has been frequently mentioned as a solution to help kids catch up and address gaps in their learning. Do you think that’s the right approach?
My understanding of the research is high-dose tutoring, specifically, and that is a few times a week, not once a week, with specially trained teachers, either on their own or in small groups. So there are a lot of things that are tutoring programs that are maybe once a week, maybe there’s a volunteer, it could even be a teenager tutoring a kid. Or there’s summer school programs, but that doesn’t really count. When you’re pulling kids out of class, just for a little bit of time, for intensive group work, that’s fine, but that doesn’t really count as extra learning time because you’re taking from one class time where you could do something else. So I looked at it across the board, and we’re not really seeing applications of tutoring that commonly goes in line with what the research is recommending.
So bottom line: Do you think high-dose tutoring is something parents and educators should be taking into consideration to address their children’s learning loss?
Yeah, absolutely. If you have a kid who’s dealing with these gaps, knowing this is a little bit different from other kinds of academic difficulties, it’s not necessarily that they don’t understand or have the ability to understand the concept or they have a specific learning disability. It’s just like, gosh, I never learned this or I didn’t have enough time to practice this or it was introduced kind of quickly and I wasn’t able to really grasp it. This starts with a conversation with your kid’s teacher, which is, where are they showing that they’re behind? Most schools are going to be giving far more detailed assessments than the NAEP necessarily does, which can help pinpoint certain areas where kids might be needing some extra help.
A survey by Brookings Institution found that overall, less than 50 percent of parents reported their child’s school was offering tutoring and/or summer school. They also found only 23 percent of parents were interested in summer school and just over a quarter were interested in tutoring. What do you make of this?
I think these are huge problems, the lack of interest or the lack of the ability by the schools to communicate the urgency of extra learning time, on both sides. I’ve also seen surveys and polls that suggest that parents aren’t particularly concerned with their children’s academic progress, like they’re not necessarily getting the message that their kids are behind, because the bar has shifted. Understandably so, I think for parents, they’re more concerned with their kid’s social-emotional well-being because it’s something that they’re very qualified to assess as parents. Whereas, for math, learning what the standards might be for a second grader versus a third grader isn’t something that your typical parent is super familiar with. So, without that urgency when schools give these offerings, there’s not a lot of uptake because parents are like, you know what, I’d really rather that my kid had outdoor time or physical exercise. They want to have their kid try karate, rather than extra time with math. So I think it was a communication problem.
The other side of it is obviously you can’t offer these extra learning times if you don’t have a workforce that’s up to it. They’re tired, overworked, and burned out. They’re having trouble covering classes. I was just in Milwaukee yesterday and the Milwaukee public schools are having such a dire shortage of teachers that they’re having teachers Zoom into the classroom and basically have proctors in the room with the students. So it’s not really even like in-person learning and this is 2022. So I think that it’s a really, really big problem.
Children of color have disproportionately been impacted by COVID-19, experiencing higher death rates and more pronounced setbacks in test scores. How do we take that into consideration when trying to address learning loss?
We have to remember that the achievement gap has nothing to do with children’s innate abilities and has everything to do with the instruction that is given to them or denied to them. The widening of these gaps also reflects the different experiences of the pandemic in different communities. So we know that Black and Hispanic families lost more people to COVID-19, those people died at younger ages and there were more children that were bereaved and orphaned by COVID-19. Whereas in Asian American families we’re dealing with an uptick in hate incidents, and they were more likely to keep their children in remote learning because they had a higher level of caution about the virus. So they’re really different experiences that these communities are taking in that might be impacting their test score performance. We must be really careful to say that while we’re targeting supports, opportunities, and access for these kids, we’re not labeling them as somehow being inherently worse off. These test scores are just a very tiny leading indicator of a much bigger problem which has to do with how we treated kids during the pandemic and how we basically allowed them to be forgotten while we tried to and failed to stop high death rates in our communities.
I think some of the strongest school districts that I’ve seen have adopted a mentality where they’re focusing on belonging and on school engagement and seeing families as a resource rather than an obstacle to school engagement. So figuring out ways to get the students and their families on board. Another big factor that sometimes gets overlooked in school performance with Black and Hispanic families, in particular, is teachers that look like them. There’s a lot of research that’s shown having at least one teacher who is a member of that group can actually improve a kid’s performance in that persistence into high school. It really is a full-bore effort, there’s no special kind of instruction that works better with one kid of one race or ethnicity versus another, but there’s a lot that schools can do to give across the atmosphere that you belong here, we know that you can do this, and you’re destined for great things. That’s what I see a lot of successful school communities doing.
How do we take into consideration the hundreds of thousands of American schoolchildren who lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19?
That’s classified as an adverse childhood experience. It’s been proven to have potentially lifelong impacts on health as well as mental health. For my book, The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now, I did talk to a lot of children’s grief counselors and they were interested in the idea of having schools become grief-informed communities. That means having a collective sense, and the stewarding done through professional development and also through sessions with students, to understand how grief looks and how you can help someone who might be hurting, how a community can come together and support people and not make it taboo. Because a lot of times, grief in particular is something that we’re really uncomfortable with in this culture, and people don’t talk about it and kids might feel sidelined or ostracized or that they can’t talk about their person. Some of the young people that I spoke to who went through this loss said that learning that all of their feelings were OK and that it was OK to be sad, it was OK to be happy, and understanding how to remember their person and honor their person were all things that were really helpful for them. The whole school can be a place where there’s a little more tenderness, a little more understanding that we’ve been through different kinds of pain, and these clinicians told me that it really can be extra helpful for kids and help them recover.