Are Texas school closures to blame for decline in NAEP results?

Amid the usual school supply shopping, classroom decorating and meet the teacher nights, this year’s return to school has been marked by uncertainty and anxiety. Scores of unfilled jobs and more than three-quarters of teachers seriously considering quitting have undercut the usual excitement after more than two tough years since the start of the pandemic.

So, when this year’s results from a national assessment of 9-year-olds’ reading and math performance showed markedly lower scores than decades past, it was yet another demoralizing indicator of how the pandemic has affected our education system.

School closures immediately took the blame.

The commissioner of the test administrator, the National Center for Education Statistics, called the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress “sobering.” Math scores declined seven points while reading scores fell by five points.

“National test results reveal the damage from school closures,” declared the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, blaming teachers’ unions. The slightly more sympathetic Washington Post editorial board wrote, “Two decades of academic progress have been erased.”

Summing up the impact of two years of disruption is not as simple as the term “learning loss” suggests.

While the results confirm fears that students did indeed experience some truly disruptive circumstances, it isn’t clear that virtual learning deserves all the blame.

School closures were far from uniform. And our educational landscape certainly isn’t. Many of the same challenges facing schools before the pandemic are still here, now amplified by trauma and disruption. Addressing that requires thoughtful approaches, funding and communities as invested in as they were in those early days when they realized just how important schools are.

Some 70 percent of the students that took the NAEP assessment said they had some virtual learning in the 2020-2021 school year but the NAEP cautioned against oversimplifications of the data: “[T]hese results cannot be used to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the characteristics or experiences and student achievement. “

The results show that there isn’t an easy narrative behind them, with drops in rural, suburban and urban school districts. Urban school districts remained relatively flat in reading despite drops in math. “We know that those rural districts went back much earlier, yet they still dropped,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers.

That’s partly because there were indications that virtual learning was far from a universal experience, constrained by preexisting inequalities that have long shaped the educational landscape.

Only 58 percent of lower-performing students said they had a desktop computer, laptop or tablet available all the time compared to 83 percent of higher-performing students. Likewise only 26 percent of lower-performing students had access to high-speed internet at least some of the time and only 30 percent had a quiet place to work some of the time, compared to 43 and 45 percent respectively for higher-performing students.

In Houston ISD, 21 percent of families said they had limited or no internet access in a survey conducted, it should be noted, online and early in the pandemic. Most had wifi or high-speed internet but for those that didn’t, the district’s Sanctuaries of Learning program partnered with churches to offer students a place to learn and work, particularly for those with working parents.

Virtual learning was not the only change many families experienced during the pandemic. That same survey found that more than a third of families were earning less money and more than 1 in 10 lost their jobs and an additional 1 in 10 had to take time off work without pay. These hardships spilled over into emotional well being, too, where more than a third of families said they felt overwhelmed.

“It’s multi-faceted, it’s not just ‘loss,’” Sara Hall, a high school English teacher in Houston said, considering the confluence of complications she’s seeing in her classroom now.

The view from her classroom is a bit different than the narratives she often hears repeated outside.

“I have the same issues I had pre-pandemic,” she said. Though going virtual was a challenge, she said it gave her a chance to work one-on-one with students and find new ways for the students to work together, too. All in all, her students this year are just as capable. The struggle has been in helping everyone get reacclimated to the school environment and addressing social and emotional needs that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“There was already trauma in schools,” Hall said, “but now we’re dealing with these kids and we have a very high number of kids who lost immediate members of their family.”

An estimated 209,700 children across the country lost one or both parents due to COVID. That’s more than every single student in Houston ISD.

“What is the metric we’re comparing them to? Kids that didn’t go through a pandemic? That didn’t have their lives turned upside down? ” Hall asked.

School closures were disruptive. No doubt. Parents were justified in their concern for their students. For those parents, who care deeply about learning and equity, the work is not finished just because the school doors are open again.

There is additional federal funding coming to schools and some have suggested using it to add those extra supports now for students, including considering longer school years, something Capo said should be on the table with the right structure.

The challenges of the pandemic – just like the pandemic itself – are not over and we will only meet them if we work together in the best interests of learning. Getting back in the classroom is good but it’s not enough.

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