Nine months ago, Stanford University educational sociologist Sean Reardon seemed confident that students would bounce back relatively quickly from the COVID disruption in their schools. He told Education Week’s Sarah Schwartz: “Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds, will be back to normal relatively soon….”
Now Reardon has joined Harvard’s Tom Kane expressing deeper concern about what the newest test scores show: serious inequalities in the way children’s schooling was disrupted. Because Reardon and Kane are data wonks, of course test scores—the primary source of measurable academic data—are their focus. Their new conclusions about the depth of COVID disruption—what the data prove—should interest and concern us all. I am concerned, however, about their proposed remedy when it comes to helping children who fell even further behind during the pandemic.
Here is how Reardon and Kane describe their research and what they have discovered: “We’ve looked at test scores, the duration of school closures, broadband availability, Covid death rates, employment data, patterns of social activity, voting patterns, measures of how connected people are to others in their communities and Facebook survey data on both family activities and mental health during the pandemic. And to get a sense of how probable it is that students will make up the ground they lost over the next few years, we looked at earlier test scores to see how students recovered from various disruptions in the decade before the pandemic… Our detailed geographic data reveals what national tests do not: The pandemic exacerbated economic and racial educational inequality.”
Are you surprised?
They continue: “By 2022, the typical student in the poorest districts had lost three-quarters of a year in math, more than double the decline of students in the richest districts. The declines in reading scores were half as large as in math and were similarly much larger in poor districts than rich districts. The pandemic left students in low-income and predominantly minority communities ever further behind their peers in richer, whiter districts than they were… (T)he extent to which schools were closed appears to have affected all students in a community equally, regardless of income or race… But school closures are only part of the story… We found that test scores declined more in places where the Covid death rate was high, in communities where adults reported feeling more depression and anxiety during the pandemic, and where daily routines of children and families were more significantly restricted. In combination, these factors put enormous strain on parents, teachers and kids…. On average, both math and reading scores declined by roughly a tenth of a year more in the 10 percent of districts where social activities were most curtailed than they did in the 10 percent least restricted.”
Parents don’t realize, they write, how far behind their children really are; they should be worried. School districts need to take major steps. So…. what are their prescriptions? They conclude: “This summer mayors and governors should be launching public service campaigns to promote summer learning. And school boards should begin negotiating to extend the next school year.” Community organizations, museums, camps and athletic programs should “add an academic component to those programs.” “One possibility would be to offer an optional fifth year of high school for students to fill holes in academic skills, get help with applying to college or to explore alternative career pathways… Another option would be to make ninth grade a triage year during which students would receive intensive help in key academic subjects. As enticing as it might be to get back to normal, doing so will just leave in place the devastating increase in inequality caused by the pandemic.”
What worries me in a report documenting that, “in communities where adults reported feeling more depression and anxiety during the pandemic, and where daily routines of children and families were more significantly restricted,” the purpose of the new report seems to be stimulating parents to worry more. And, if disruption in children’s lives was a primary cause of collapsing test scores, according to this research, why pack academics into summer camp and football practice at a time when we should be grateful that kids’ social life is returning to normal?
What about making the school year longer and adding a fifth year of high school? Kane and Reardon suggest that the proposed fifth year would be optional, but I worry— when it comes to how the test-and-punish accountability hawks have always operated—whether optional might pretty soon become mandatory when it comes to the kids with the lowest scores. And even though these researchers correlate the reduction of in-person schooling with increased learning loss, they suggest that schools should incentivize community organizations to have students use “educational software—like the programs from Zearn and Khan Academy… Schools could incentivize organizations working with students after school, on weekends or during school vacation weeks to include time for students to learn online.”
Public school policy that obsesses about test scores has for over two decades been punitive for schools, punitive for teachers, and punitive for children. Many states have failed to end the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee, which holds kids back when they can’t pass the mandatory standardized test in third grade, even though it has been well documented that holding kids back even once increases their chance of dropping out before high school graduation. And a number of states still make high school graduation dependent on passing a high school exit exam even when students have completed all of their classes successfully. Will cut scores on standardized tests once again become the marker that mandates more punishment—summer school and a fifth year of high school?
Certainly I believe that school districts should prioritize, and school staff should collaborate on plans to ensure that students catch up on their academic skills. But I know that, in Ohio, for example, as the state phases in a new school funding plan, legislators have failed the school districts serving communities where family poverty is concentrated by phasing increases in Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid at a much slower rate than the rest of the new formula. And rather than accelerating the phase-in of the new plan, the legislature intends to drive more and more money to expanding vouchers for private school tuition.
In an article published in a 2023, Big Ideas report from First Focus on Children, constitutional scholar Derek Black describes the rampant school funding inequity across the states and among the school districts within each state. Surely these alarming school resource disparities are a large part of the reason some children are catching up from COVID’s disruption more slowly than children in other school districts: “On most major measures, educational inequality is holding steady or on the rise. Achievement, segregation, and funding data all indicate that poor and minority students are receiving vastly unequal educational opportunities. For instance, predominantly minority schools receive about $2,000 less per student than predominantly white schools. Even putting aside this inequality, overall government commitment to public education is receding. Since 2008, most states have substantially decreased school funding, some by more than 20%.”
We also know that family poverty is an enormous challenge for parents and for children and that school achievement scores correlate with family income. Congress supported parents and children during 2022 by expanding the federal Child Tax Credit and making it fully refundable to the poorest families. But Congress let that program lapse (see here and here) at the end of 2022, throwing many families back into deep poverty. Restoring the 2022 expanded and fully refundable Child Tax Credit would be a major step to help stabilize children’s lives.
The most direct way for states to address academic learning loss through their public schools is for legislators to invest in the public schools by ensuring that state school finance formulas are adequate, fully funded, and designed to distribute revenue equitably across wealthy and poor school districts. Children will best catch up from the pandemic in small classes taught by well supported teachers. Students will engage enthusiastically with schooling when there are strong academics, reading programs that feature enticing children’s and adolescent literature, art and music programs, and plenty of sports and other enriching settings for students to connect both socially and academically.
Certainly I agree with Reardon and Kane that test scores documenting COVID learning loss are a symptom of extremely serious structural inequity that was only exacerbated by the pandemic. But I believe significant efforts to address school funding inequity and ameliorate child poverty are the only long term way to help children who are struggling to catch up after the three-year COVID disruption.