The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed the well-being of poor children by not only closing their schools, but also taking away their parents’ jobs, making their families and teachers sick, and adding chaos and fear to their daily lives.
The extent of the disruption in American children’s learning is evident in an analysis of district-by-district test scores, shared exclusively by The Associated Press. The data provide the most complete picture of how far behind students are in their studies.
The analysis showed that the average student lost more than half of a school year in math and nearly a quarter of a school year in reading — with averages in some districts more than halving or worse.
Online learning played an important role, but students lost significant ground even as they quickly returned to school, especially in math scores in low-income communities.
“When you have a large-scale crisis, the people with the least resources end up feeling the worst,” said Stanford education professor Sean Reardon, who collected and analyzed the data with Harvard economist Thomas Cain.
Some educators object to the very idea of measuring learning loss after a crisis that killed more than 1 million Americans. Reading and math scores don’t tell everything about what’s going on with a child, but they are one of the few aspects of child development that can be accurately measured across the country.
PHOTO: Mass learning failures show that COVID is seriously harming children
“Test scores are not the only thing or the most important thing,” Reardon said. “But they serve as an indicator of how the kids are doing.”
And children are not doing well, especially those who were most at risk before the pandemic. The data shows that many children need serious intervention, and advocates and researchers say the U.S. isn’t doing enough.
Together, Reardon and Kane created a map showing how many years of education the average student in each district lost as of 2019. Their project, the Education Recovery Scorecard, compared the results of a test known as the “national report card” with local standardized test results from 29 states and Washington, D.C.
In Memphis, Tennessee, where nearly 80% of students are poor, students lost the equivalent of 70% of a school year in reading and more than a year in math, according to the analysis. Black students in the district lost a year and one-third in math and two-thirds of a year in reading.
For the church’s pastor, Charles Lampkin, who is Black, the impact on his sons’ reading has drawn attention. He was studying the Bible with them one evening this fall when he noticed that his sixth- and seventh-grade students were struggling with their “junior” editions of the Bible, written for a fifth-grade reading level. “They couldn’t get through it,” Lampkin said.
Lampkin blames the year and a half his sons were away from school buildings from March 2020 to fall 2021.
“They didn’t practice at all. It was all nonsense,” he said.
Representatives of the local Shelby County Public Schools district did not return numerous phone calls and emails seeking comment. Shelby County Schools offered tutoring to the lowest-performing students last year, according to district filings. Most tutored students focused on English but not math. Lumpkin said his sons were not offered extra help.
The amount of knowledge students lost — or gained, in rare cases — varied widely over the past three years. According to Kane and Reardon’s analysis, poverty and time spent in distance learning influenced learning loss, and learning loss was greater in neighborhoods that stayed online longer. But neither was a perfect predictor of declines in reading and math.
In some districts, students lost more than two years of math learning, according to the data. Hopewell, Virginia, a school system of 4,000 students, mostly low-income and 60% black, showed an average loss of 2.29 years in school.
“This is not at all what we wanted to see,” said Deputy Superintendent Jay McClain.
The district began offering face-to-face instruction in March 2021, but three-quarters of students stayed home. “There was a lot of fear about the effects of COVID,” he said. “Families were just stuck here.”
When schools resumed in the fall, the virus swept through Hopewell, leaving half of all students at home either sick or in quarantine, McClain said. A full 40% of students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 days or more.
The pandemic has brought other challenges beyond distance learning.
In Rochester, New Hampshire, students lost nearly two years in reading, even though schools offered in-person tutoring for most of the 2020-2021 school year. This was the biggest drop in literacy among all the districts in the analysis.
The district of 4,000 students, where most of them are white and nearly half live in poverty, was forced to close schools in November 2020 when too few teachers could show up for work, Superintendent Kyle Repucci said. Students studied online until March 2021, and when schools reopened, many chose to stay with distance learning, Repucci said.
“Students here were exposed to things they never should have been exposed to until much later,” Repucci said. “Death. Serious illness. They work to feed their families.”
In Los Angeles, school leaders closed classes for the entire 2020-2021 school year, but students kept reading.
It is difficult to say what explains the very different results in some states. Reardon said that in California, where student averages remained stable or declined only slightly, that could indicate that teachers there were better at teaching than Zoom or that the state had made effective investments in technology.
But the differences can also be explained by what happened outside of school. “I think a lot more of the variation is due to things that were out of the school’s control,” Reardon said.
Now adults in America must work to heal children. Advocates for the federal government and individual states hope that the recent release of test data can inspire more urgency to direct funding to students who have been hit hardest, whether it’s academic or other support.
School systems are still spending nearly $190 billion in federal recovery aid, an amount experts say falls short of addressing the extent of the loss of learning in schools. According to Kane and Reardon’s analysis, nearly 70% of students live in districts where federal aid likely isn’t enough to make up for the size of their learning loss.
The implications for children’s futures are troubling: Lower test scores predict lower wages, as well as higher rates of incarceration and teenage pregnancy, Kane said.
It doesn’t take Harvard research to convince parents whose children struggle with reading or algebra that something needs to be done.
At his church in Memphis, Lampkin started his own tutoring program three nights a week. Adults from his congregation, some of them teachers, help about 50 students with homework, consolidate skills and teach new ones.
“We didn’t have to do that,” Lampkin said. “But sometimes you have to lead by example.”
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