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Latest Nationwide Tests Show Public Schools Failing Students Even Before Lockdowns


In some cases, optimistic individuals will attempt to discount bad news by claiming that “it could be worse.” Unfortunately for America’s school system, the latest news demonstrates that American kids’ education outcomes almost certainly will get worse.

Results from standardized tests administered in January 2020—just before COVID lockdowns hit American shores—show a marked deterioration in students’ progress. With children already failing to advance academically prior to 18 months of lockdowns and virtual learning, the outlook following the dislocation inspired by both the virus and teachers’ unions looks bleak.

NAEP Scores Falling For Yet Another Round

The results come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, colloquially referred to as the “nation’s report card.” The tests normally assess students at age 9, age 13, and age 17. However, because the age 17 tests get administered in the spring (i.e., March through May), the lockdowns canceled this portion of last year’s assessment.

While reading and math scores for the age 9 cohort remain unchanged from the 2012 round of tests, they both declined for students aged 13. The trend suggests students are falling further behind as they age through American schools, regressing rather than progressing.

Kids Left Behind

Even more troubling: The performance of low-scoring students declined the most. Math saw a greater drop-off, with a 13-year-old at the 50th percentile scoring lower than his 2012 peers did. But in all segments—in reading and math, and at age 9 and age 13—the average scores of the lowest 10 perent of students declined by statistically significant levels compared to 2012.

The statistics demonstrate a generation of students—many of them poor, and many of them students of color—falling further and further behind. As Peggy Carr with the Department of Education put it, “Lower-performing students no longer demonstrate competency in skills that students were able to do almost a decade ago.”

Lockdowns Made Things Much Worse

Remember: These results came before the pandemic response caused major disruptions to the education system. The combination of perpetual school lockdowns, logistical and technical problems associated with virtual learning, and economic dislocation caused by the lockdowns affected millions of American children in ways we have only begun to quantify.

Consider some of the following statistics from the U.S. Department of Education. From fall 2019 to fall 2020, public school enrollment declined by 1.1 million individuals. This decline of course does not consider any enrollment fluctuations for the 2021-22 academic year.

As of February 2021, only about one-third (35 percent) of fourth-grade and eighth-grade students attended school fully in-person, with another one-fifth (21 percent) participating in a hybrid model. According to a May 2021 survey of fourth-grade and eighth-grade students, Hispanic (32 percent) and African American (38 percent) students were enrolled in remote instruction at more than twice the rate of white students (15 percent).

Multiple studies and surveys have found school lockdowns have resulted in hundreds of thousands, even millions, of students simply vanishing from school classrooms—with parents forced to move, children unable to access remote lessons, and families disengaged and disillusioned with an educational establishment that has left them behind.

Don’t Expand the Failed Status Quo

These results provide all the argument needed against the Biden administration’s approach for more government-run educational programs. Rather than throwing more money at a failed system, conservatives should focus on replacing it.

Recent comments in a debate by Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they teach,” illustrate the problem. The left wants bureaucrats to supervise the “education”—often indoctrination—of American society, and would use Democrats’ planned spending sprees to expand education spending, and thus their power.

Conservatives should instead let parents and families—the same ones McAuliffe wants to shut out of school decisions—choose where their sons and daughters can best get a quality education.

I have long supported school choice precisely because its message focuses on empowering people, not government. (While I have served as a paid consultant to several choice organizations, they did not draft or review this posting, and my views are, as always, my own.) But the combination of the latest decline in test scores, the impact of lockdowns on the COVID generation, and McAuliffe’s patronizing comments illustrate the stakes in this debate.

As Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address 40 years ago, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem—government is the problem.” Only getting Washington out of the education business, and putting parents back in the driver’s seat, can forestall the continuing slide of America’s next generation.