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Evidence Of Catastrophic Learning Loss From School Lockdowns Piles Up

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A new report documents that closing schools for months on end due to Covid scarred children’s learning — quite possibly for life.

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In one sense, the recent press release from the Department of Education featuring the latest results from national achievement tests barely classifies as “news.” But that fact makes the report no less important because it further confirms what other studies in the past several years have revealed: Closing schools for months on end due to Covid scarred children’s learning — quite possibly for life.

This report analyzed outcomes for 13-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the “Nation’s Report Card.” And as with national tests for fourth and eighth graders, the results of which were released last September, students showed a dramatic drop in their aptitude in reading and mathematics.

Troubling Trend

The recent release reflects scores from this fall’s NAEP long-term trend assessment designed to examine how student performance evolves over time. While working to measure long-term trends, this test also quantified a short-term drop in achievement as test scores plummeted by a statistically significant four points in reading and nine points in math compared to pre-pandemic levels.

But sadly, the lockdown-related drop in student achievement, while the most dramatic, is far from the first. To echo Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, test scores have fallen gradually, then suddenly. Over the past decade, scores have declined by a total of seven points in reading, and 14 points in math.

And as with the NAEP results released last September, the poorest-achieving students suffered the worst drop in test scores.

In reading, the highest-achieving 10 percent of students saw scores drop by three points since 2020, and four points since 2012. By contrast, the lowest-achieving 10 percent of students saw scores drop by seven points since 2020, and 12 points since 2012.

In math, the highest-achieving 10 percent saw scores drop by seven points since 2020, and seven points since 2012. On the other hand, students in the lowest-achieving 10 percent saw scores drop by 15 points since 2020, and a whopping 27 points since 2012.

In other words, the students in most need of help are falling further and further behind.

Also worth noting: The number of 13-year-olds who report reading for fun on their own time fell nearly in half compared to 2012 (27 percent then versus 14 percent now). Perhaps unsurprisingly, larger percentages of higher-performing students reported reading for fun. While this particular trend may have more to do with the rise of social media than pandemic lockdowns, it nevertheless alters student achievement.

School Choice Can Help

A few days before the Department of Education released this latest set of disappointing NAEP results, researchers at Stanford provided a light amidst the gloom. The Stanford University report provided yet more evidence that school choice options — in this case, charter education — can increase student achievement, including among underperforming students.

Overall, the comprehensive study of more than 2 million students in 29 states and the District of Columbia found that charter school students gained the equivalent of 16 days of learning in reading, and six in math, compared to students of similar backgrounds who remained in traditional public schools. Some states showed far greater achievement, with charter students in New York state gaining 75 days in reading and nearly 73 in math, and Rhode Island charter students gaining the equivalent of roughly half an academic year in reading (90 days) and math (88 days).

The study findings also provide a rebuttal to arguments that charter schools — publicly funded schools given more flexibility to experiment but held accountable for student outcomes — attract “easier” students to teach, leaving traditional public schools with the tougher cases. Not only did the authors’ methodology of matching charter students to their public school counterparts attempt to control for this factor, but students in poverty achieved greater learning gains than the entire charter population as a whole.

Likewise, African American and Hispanic charter school students achieved greater learning gains than their white counterparts when compared to their public school peers. Hispanic and African American students in poverty gained more than a month of learning in both reading and math, compared to those who remained in traditional public education. By contrast, the NAEP results for the country as a whole showed a greater drop in test scores for African Americans than for the white population.

Some of the more granular findings provide additional encouragement about charters’ long-term potential.

First, organizations that operate multiple charter schools had much larger gains (27 days in reading and 23 in math) than single-school charters (gain of 10 days in reading and a statistically insignificant loss of three days in math) — a finding that suggests successful charters can indeed “scale” their accomplishments to broader student populations.

Second, schools that participated in prior versions of the study increased their learning gains in this most recent study, suggesting that scores may rise even further in the future.

Third, the learning gains of students who remained in charter schools increased over time, showing that academic improvement will prove durable at the student level as well as at the school level — positive achievement begetting more positive achievement.

Let Parents Choose

The twin studies illustrate the stakes within our current educational system. Even as test scores plummeted following government-imposed lockdowns, options like charter education, Educational Savings Accounts, and other school choice initiatives are leading the way by promoting the academic innovation sorely lacking in many traditional public schools. After the pandemic opened their eyes to the drawbacks of the flawed status quo, lawmakers in many states have worked to expand choice options during their legislative sessions this year.

Of course, teachers unions don’t want to allow parents to choose. They worked hand-in-glove with the Biden administration to keep schools closed during the pandemic and want to deny parents the ability to select anything other than traditional public schools.

But the American people have seen firsthand the havoc that union-inspired lockdowns wreaked on millions of students, and they don’t want to go back. We can do better — and with expanded school choice, our nation’s children will.


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