With the sudden, unplanned, and in many ways dramatic shift to online learning in the 2019-2020 school year, many have asked the question: What impact has COVID had on student learning? This question has been hotly debated over the last two years. I have spoken with countless educators who all echo a common observation, regardless of subject matter or grade level: there has been a significant decline in student learning since the 2020 shutdowns began. Parents of school-aged children have likely seen and felt the impact of that school year on their children. Data and statistics to quantify what’s been dubbed the “COVID learning loss” are beginning to emerge.
The National Center for Education Statistics provides an annual National Assessment of Education Progress, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” This assessment is conducted in most public schools and among many Catholic schools, so the majority of American students are represented in these scores. As such, it provides nationally aggregated data to indicate how students are learning and growing in American schools. This year’s NAEP scores were highly anticipated since they were the first scores recorded since 2019. Again, the question on many minds has been: What academic impact did shutdowns have on students?
Now that they have officially been released, the scores serve to confirm what many anticipated. That is, the unexpected move to online learning has had a devastating effect on students’ academic progress over the last three years. In fact, the scores were shockingly bad. For example, in a typical year, a one- to two-point difference increase or decrease is considered significant. This year’s NAEP scores indicate, “The average scores for age nine students...declined five points in reading and seven points in mathematics compared to 2020.” These numbers indicate substantial learning loss for students. In some regions and states, the score differences are even more dramatic. In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, the average eighth-grade math score dropped a shocking 15 points. Translating the national average scores to grade-level competency, only about one-third of eighth-graders were reading at a proficient level for their grade.
The significance of these most recent NAEP scores cannot be overstated. Many argued that, as a nation, our education system and student progress were in crisis before the pandemic; there is no doubt now that we are coming out of school shutdowns in crisis. And these types of declines will likely not be recovered in just one or two years. It may take over a decade to recover from a learning loss of this magnitude. Some students will feel the effects for the entirety of their educational journey. The long-term nature of these losses calls for long-term solutions on a macro scale; our kids and their future are at serious risk.
In my work, we believe that one of the solutions to this crisis is the expansion of educational freedom. That is, providing parents and caregivers with choice when it comes to their child’s schooling. Recent legislation changes in states like Arizona and West Virginia have made state-funded educational scholarships available to the majority of their K-12 constituents. Legislators in Ohio have drafted State House Bill 290, also known as the “Backpack Bill,” that would allow Ohio families to apply an annual sum of money to the schooling option of their choice—be it public, private, or homeschooling. Expanded educational freedom is part of the solution now, so that students’ current learning needs can be met. It is also part of the solution for the future, so that parents can more easily make the best educational choices for their students should extenuating circumstances arise again.
On a micro level, there are some practical ways that parents can continue to support their children and address any possible COVID-related learning loss. One seemingly simple way to support a student’s literacy is just reading with and to them at home. Not only were students forced into at-home schooling in 2020, but they also suffered from the lack of access to literacy-rich environments like public libraries. Even students as old as ten, eleven, or twelve, often still enjoy being read to, and the literacy benefits to young students are not insignificant.
I also strongly recommend to parents that they engage in open conversations with their child’s teachers, discussing what they are seeing in the classroom, what learning gaps might be present, and to determine how to best partner with the teachers in a child’s academic progress. One piece of that conversation may be any recent standardized test scores of your child’s academic performance. Even if a school does not participate in the NAEP testing, certainly almost all schools conduct some sort of standardized testing. Discussing these results with a student’s teacher may also prove beneficial in tracking progress and addressing areas of weakness. Though the educational circumstances may seem dire on a national level and perhaps even on a familial level, it is not without hope. As we continue to collaborate on micro and macro levels, we can work together to meet student needs and help them become all that they were made to be.