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Double whammy: Dropping test scores and ‘pandemic learning loss’

Masked students outside their closed school, which shut down because of COVID-19. (Photo: Falon Koontz, via Shutterstock)

The first standardized school testing since the pandemic has confirmed what parents knew all along – Covid shutdowns and remote learning hurt student performance and wiped out years of improvement.

Repairing the damage won’t be easy. “Pandemic learning loss” presents a unique set of problems for which educators have no playbook.

Testing was suspended in 2020 along with in-person learning. The most recent tests against which this year’s performance can be compared were administered in 2019. The declining scores are alarming but not unexpected.

“Gaps that we were working to close before the pandemic have persisted, especially for disadvantaged students.” — Tony Thurmon

The latest scores – released earlier this week – show that fewer than half of California students (47 percent) met the grade-level standard for English. That’s 4 percentage points below pre-pandemic results.

It’s even worse for math. Results dropped 6.5 percentage points, and only a third of students perform at grade level.

While student achievement declined across the board, Black children and those learning English suffered most. Among Black students, 16 percent were proficient in grade-level math. For English learners it was 9.7 percent.

The achievement gap clearly got worse.

“Gaps that we were working to close before the pandemic have persisted, especially for disadvantaged students,” said Tony Thurmond, the state superintendent of public education, adding that educators “have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Like Thurmond, Newsom views a record education budget – $170 billion – as a cure in waiting.

Thurmond, eager for a silver lining, pointed to record education spending in the current budget.

“With resources and support,” he said, “our students can overcome these challenges and can thrive.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom took a similar glass-half-full view. He focused on the fact that other states showed similar, or worse, declines – a distinction that gave little comfort to education advocates.

“While California’s students experienced less learning loss than those in most other states during the pandemic, these results are not a celebration but a call to action,” Newsom said.

Like Thurmond, Newsom views a record education budget – $170 billion – as a cure in waiting.

“That’s why we’ve made record investments in education,” he said.

“It’s commendable, but for some time our systems have been in, and continue to be in chaos.” — Heather Hough,

Newsom and lawmakers set aside $23.8 billion over the past three years to address “pandemic learning loss.”

This year, nearly $8 billion of that funding will provide grants to cover the cost of an extended school year, in hopes that additional instruction will get pupils back on track.

The grants also will help pay for tutoring, counseling and mental health services.

All of that is good, say advocates, but schools may be hard-pressed to achieve long lasting results with one-time resources.

Hough likened schools to soil parched by drought – when rain finally arrives, the sun-hardened ground may at first be unable to absorb it.

“It’s commendable, but for some time our systems have been in, and continue to be in chaos,” said Heather Hough, executive director of the research and advocacy organization Policy Analysis for California Education.

An ongoing teacher shortage has left many children without stability in the classroom. Districts have had to rely on an ever-changing stream of substitutes and temporary instructors.

Hough likened schools to soil parched by drought – when rain finally arrives, the sun-hardened ground may at first be unable to absorb it.

“All of the sudden we have resources for mental health, but it’s not like we’ve had a shadow workforce waiting for those positions,” she said.

And since the funding is not ongoing, she said, those positions might not be desirable for mental health workers seeking to build a career.

“All of this should sound an alarm. It’s completely unprecedented,” said Hough. “Even with this big infusion of money, it’s not solved.”

Nor is it clear exactly how to restore what has been lost.

“We don’t know how to solve it,” she said, “we’ve never seen anything like it.”

 

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