- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2023

About half of K-12 public school students started this fall behind their grade level in at least one subject, most commonly reading or math, according to new federal data released Thursday.

The 49% of 1,026 schools who told the National Center for Education Statistics’ latest School Pulse Panel that their students started the year behind a grade level is statistically unchanged from last school year. But it’s much worse than the 36% of students before the coronavirus pandemic who started the school year on the wrong track, according to the agency, which is the statistical arm of the Department of Education.

“Both this school year and last school year, public school leaders estimated that about half of their students began the school year behind grade level in at least one academic subject,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr. “These data suggest that academic recovery will take time. Additional data show that public schools are employing a combination of learning recovery strategies to help students get back on track.”

More than 80% of the school administrators responding to the survey, conducted in December, said they’ve provided tutoring and remedial instruction to help students catch up. And school districts have about a year and a half left to spend their portion of $189 billion in federal pandemic relief funds. 

About half of the schools surveyed said they’ve allocated some of those relief funds toward extra academic support for students and training for staff to become tutors. But just 1 in 10 students nationally have received “high-dosage” tutoring.

That suggests schools have made little progress in addressing the historic learning losses and heightened mental illness that arose among students during two years of pandemic-induced virtual and hybrid learning.

“What we need now is a coordinated effort of one-on-one tutoring to address skill gaps,” Sara E. Rimm-Kaufman, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, said in an email. “That needs to be paired with ramping up mental health services in schools.”

Mental health experts say a nationwide shortage of teachers and staff, safety concerns over recent school shootings and surging numbers of children seeking treatment for anxiety and depression hindered progress last year.

“Additionally, the pandemic isn’t over and although school is back in session for in-person learning, children as well as staff still get COVID and need to retreat back to online learning at times,” said clinical psychologist Thomas Plante, a member of the American Psychological Association and Santa Clara University professor. “Bouncing back from the pandemic will take time and perhaps more time than we expect for schoolchildren as well as so many others.”

According to the Department of Education, some of this year’s high school juniors and seniors missed entire semesters during the peak of pandemic-induced school closures. Many school districts relaxed attendance requirements and other standards to advance those students with their classmates.

The NCES survey found that 88% of schools last year used assessments to identify the needs of students who fell behind, 81% covered material they missed and 29% held longer classes. In addition, 19% extended the school day and 10% added class days to their calendars.

Those efforts did not decrease the number of students falling behind in the annual survey from the end of 2021 to the end of 2022 — and parental rights advocates say political clashes over racism lessons and transgender students’ access to campus facilities did not help. 

“This data is tragic but expected. Every level of leadership in the school system is distracted from academics,” said Sheri Few, president of United States Parents Involved in Education. “Government schools are so utterly focused on sexualizing children and indoctrinating them against their country and each other that real academic learning is clearly not the priority.”

The survey’s focus on math and reading echoes the first nationwide data on the impact of COVID-era learning on test performance — the National Assessment of Educational Progress — that the NCEP published in October. 

Two years of pandemic-disrupted learning erased two decades of U.S. gains in math and reading scores, the report found.

As schools switched to virtual and hybrid learning from early 2020 to winter 2022, average long-term math scores fell for the first time and reading scores suffered their biggest drop since the NCEP started monitoring fourth- and eighth-graders in 1990.

A paltry 26% of eighth graders were considered proficient in math in 2022 — down from 34% in 2019 before the pandemic, the most recent year the national report card was issued. Fourth graders in over 40 states saw their math scores decline. Only 36% scored proficient, down from 41%.

Reading scores offered little solace, with only one-third of fourth graders marked proficient, continuing a slide that began before the coronavirus hit. Only 31% of eighth graders received proficient scores, the lowest average since 1998.

The country’s two leading teachers’ unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — have blamed the declines on insufficient resources and low teacher salaries.

Others have cited school closures during the pandemic, however.

“Decades of progress evaporated when students were kept out of schools and forced to wear masks during their most formative years,” said Erika Sanzi of the parental rights group Parents Defending Education. “Getting students back up to speed is an incredibly heavy lift and unfortunately, too many people in power have opted to focus on everything except what students actually need and deserve.”

Policymakers from both parties “who valued currying political favor with teachers’ unions over having functional schools and following scientific data” share the blame for closing schools, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“In the U.S., schools were the first to close and last to open — that is the opposite of what the paradigm should have been,” said Dr. Adalja, an infectious disease specialist. “The policymakers behind these decisions should be held accountable for what they wrought.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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