The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the well-being of poor children, not only by closing their schools, but also by taking away their parents’ jobs, making their families and teachers sick, while adding chaos and fear to their daily lives.
The scale of the disruption to American children’s education is evident in a district-by-county test score analysis shared separately with The Associated Press. The data provides the most comprehensive view of student learning.
The analysis found that the average student lost more than half a year in math and nearly a quarter of a year in reading – with some of the district’s average students losing more than double that amount, or worse.
Online learning plays an important role, but students lose significant marks even as they quickly return to school, especially in math scores in low-income communities.
“When you run into a major crisis, the worst effects end up,” said Stanford education professor Sean Reardon, who compiled and analyzed the data with Harvard economist Thomas Kane. perceived by those with the fewest resources.
Some educators have opposed the idea of measuring loss in learning after a crisis that has killed more than 1 million Americans. Reading and math scores don’t tell the whole story of what’s going on with a child, but they are one of the only aspects of a child’s development that are reliably measured across the globe. country.
“Test scores aren’t the only thing or the most important thing,” Reardon said. “But they serve as an indicator of how the kids are doing.”
And the kids aren’t doing well, especially the kids most at risk from the pandemic. The data shows that many children need significant intervention, and advocates and researchers say the United States is not doing enough.
Together, Reardon and Kane created a map that shows how many years the average student in each district has spent since 2019. Their project, the Education Restoration Scorecard, compares results from a single school district. the so-called “national scorecard” with the local standardized test. Scores from 29 states and Washington, DC
According to the analysis, in Memphis, Tennessee, where nearly 80 percent of students are poor, students lose the equivalent of 70 percent a year in reading and more than a year in math. The district’s black students take a year and a half in math and two-thirds a year in reading.
For black church pastor Charles Lampkin, it was the impact of his sons’ reading that caught his attention. He was studying the Bible with them one night this fall when he noticed his sixth and seventh grade students were struggling with “junior” Bible editions written for grade level reading. five. “They couldn’t get over it,” Lampkin said.
Lampkin blamed the year and a half on his sons’ absence from schools from March 2020 until the fall of 2021.
“They weren’t engaged. It was all a joke,” he said.
The local school district this year set aside an hour a day to intervene, when struggling students can receive small group tutoring, said Cathryn Stout, a spokeswoman for Memphis-Shelby County Public Schools. Students also receive tutoring help before and after school, and some institutions have begun offering Saturday classes to help students catch up.
Lampkin said his sons have received no further help.
The amount of learning that students have lost – or gained, in rare cases – over the past three years varies widely. According to analysis by Kane and Reardon, poverty and time spent in distance learning influenced learning disabilities, and learning disabilities were even greater in online areas. longer. But neither is a perfect predictor of decline in reading and math.
According to the data, in some districts, students spend more than two years learning math. Hopewell, Virginia, a school system with 4,000 predominantly low-income and 60% black students, showed an average loss of 2.29 years of schooling.
“This is not anywhere near what we want to see,” said Deputy Director Jay McClain.
The district began offering face-to-face learning in March 2021, but three-quarters of students remain at home. “There is a lot of fear about the impact of COVID,” he said. “Families here have just shrunk.”
When schools reopened in the fall, the virus swept through Hopewell, McClain said, and half of the students stayed home either sick or in quarantine, McClain said. A full 40% of students have regular absences, meaning they have been absent from school for 18 days or more.
The pandemic has brought other challenges that are not related to distance learning.
In Rochester, New Hampshire, it took students nearly two years to read even though schools held face-to-face learning for most of the 2020-2021 school year. This is the largest drop in literacy rates among all counties in the analysis.
The 4,000-student district, which is mostly white and nearly half lives in poverty, had to close schools in November 2020 when too few teachers could go to work, Superintendent Kyle Repucci said. . Students study online until March 2021, and when schools reopen, many have chosen to stay in distance learning, Repucci said.
“Students here are exposed to things they should never have been exposed to until much later,” says Repucci. “Dead. Very sick. Working to support the family.”
In Los Angeles, school leaders have closed classrooms for the entire 2020-2021 school year, but students have stood their ground on reading.
It’s hard to say what explains the very different results in some states. In California, where the average student population has remained stable or only declined slightly, that could indicate that educators there teach better via Zoom or that the state has effectively invested in technology, Reardon said.
But the difference could also be explained by what happened outside of school. “I think there’s a lot of change in regards to things that are out of the school’s control,” Reardon said.
Now, adults in America are working toward the recovery of children. For the federal government and individual states, advocates hope the recent release of testing data can inspire more urgency to direct funding to the students who suffered the biggest setbacks, whether it is academic support or other support.
School systems are still spending nearly $190 billion in federal relief allocated to recovery, an amount that experts say does not address the level of learning loss in schools. According to Kane and Reardon’s analysis, nearly 70 percent of students live in counties where federal relief money isn’t enough to address the extent of their academic loss.
The impact on the children’s futures is alarming: Lower test scores are predictors of lower wages, plus higher rates of incarceration and teenage pregnancy, Kane said.
It didn’t take Harvard research to convince parents of children struggling with reading or algebra that something needed to be done.
At his church in Memphis, Lampkin began his tutoring program three nights a week. The adults in his congregation, some of whom are teachers, help about 50 students with their homework, solidifying skills, and teaching new ones.
“We shouldn’t have to do this,” Lampkin said. “But sometimes you have to lead by example.”
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.