The kids are not catching up

Published July 6, 2023

WORLD Opinions

Student test results released in June round out a year of bad news from the “Nation’s Report Card.” On June 21, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) announced scores for 13-year-olds on reading and math tests tracking long-term learning trends. The average reading score fell by four points and the average math score was down nine points since the last time each test was administered, just before the pandemic during the 2019-2020 school year.

These latest scores complete a bleak post-pandemic picture of the state of student learning. During the last year, NAEP has reported results for fourth- and eighth-grade math, fourth – and eighth -grade reading, eighth -grade history, eighth -grade civics, and long-term trend assessments for reading and math at ages nine and 13. All 10 assessments showed significant decreases in average scores since the prior, pre-pandemic administration of each test, with the greatest declines among low-performing students.

News reports of these disheartening results throughout the year have merged into a single refrain. School closures during the pandemic hurt achievement, in many cases accelerating negative trends that predated COVID-19. The learning loss has left students seriously lagging and will require not just a return to the normal pace of progress but extensive efforts to make up for deficits.

With results painfully clear, the question is how to recover lost ground. Calls for increased education spending are a familiar response to poor outcomes. But any such appeal now comes on the heels of an unprecedented amount of federal school spending allotted during the pandemic. That funding has been slow to reach schools and in many cases spread to purposes other than student learning, as The New York Times observed in early June. Targeting those resources to help students fill learning gaps is critical, such as through intensive tutoring.

The challenge runs deeper than skills acquisition, however. NAEP survey questions designed to identify factors related to student achievement found increased chronic absenteeism, defined as missing more than ten percent of the school year. More than 7 in 10 public schools reported that chronic absenteeism was higher during the 2021-22 school year compared to a typical pre-pandemic year. Meanwhile, a quarter of 13-year-olds surveyed in late 2022 said they had missed more than two days of school during the previous month. Ten percent said they’d missed five or more days in one month, double the rate who reported the same three years before.

Another concerning trend showed up on a NAEP survey question asking 13-year-old students how often they read for fun. Responses revealed a steep decline in the last decade. In 2012, more than a quarter (27 percent) of 13-year-olds said they read almost every day for fun, compared to just 14 percent today. Almost a third say they never or hardly ever read for pleasure. Students who read regularly for enjoyment scored higher on the NAEP reading assessment.

Detachment seems to be at the root of these two trends: disconnection from school and a lack of enjoyment from the basic building block of learning (reading). This type of indicator suggests that many children are at a loss for more than basic academic skills. They need personal investment and new opportunities to reawaken a sense of purpose in learning. That’s a challenge to churches to forge relationships with students through mentoring and tutoring. Christians can contribute through tutoring, teaching, or entrepreneurship to the creation of learning environments that build the rapport students need to flourish and succeed.

Meanwhile, policy should allow parents to choose educational options that effectively engage their children relationally and academically. The spread of parental choice in education is, thankfully, one trend line that is moving in the right direction as an increasing number of states adopt such policies. Multiplying these policies as well as personal efforts is essential. This nation simply can’t ignore the challenge of recovering lost ground and helping students to reach their full educational potential.

Jennifer Patterson is director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Jennifer Patterson is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her work focuses on projects related to religious freedom and overcoming poverty, drawing on her more than 25 years of experience in public policy.

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