It's not time to panic. But it's time to be honest. The kids are not all right.
Recently released data from across the country make clear that the pandemic’s effect on students is real, deeply problematic, and not going away anytime soon. This is not just about academics: It’s about child wellness. American students are exercising less, isolating more often from friends, missing school with greater frequency, and reporting sharply higher frequencies of mental health issues. They are hurting.
And on top of this, learning has suffered in ways that are real and meaningful. To start, kids have been progressing at slower-than-typical rates in all subjects. This pattern is clearest for students who were already struggling before the pandemic—a tragedy because these same students are also more likely to be from less-resourced families. Interruptions to education related to COVID-19 have exacerbated existing education gaps, supersizing them from bad to much worse.
What does this look like? In one state after another, recent test results are confirming our worst fears. Here are some key trends:
- Most states saw their scores drop precipitously compared to 2019, when tests were last administered. In some cases, this year’s results erased years of prior gains.
- Slower learning was more pronounced for students who spent more time learning remotely. In contrast, students who attended schools that re-opened sooner tended to see smaller dips. This trend has been evident in multiple states including Louisiana, Connecticut, and Colorado.
- Learning has suffered more in math than reading. In Memphis, for example, the share of students in grades 3-5 who were “on-track” in math was 34 percent prior to the pandemic. This year, it plummeted to just 9 percent. In Dallas, the percentage of students who failed the state math exam jumped from 25 in 2019 to 43 in 2021. In one state after another, more students scored in the lowest possible achievement level this year than in 2019.
It’s worth asking: In the face of a global pandemic—in which millions of children have lost family members and loved ones, never mind time in school—do test scores really matter? Many caregivers and educators alike pushed back on testing students at all this year, arguing that scores are meaningless in the context of all that students have lost—and all that they may have gained, too, like lessons in resilience and compassion.
The point of testing students right now isn’t to obsess about whether they still remember their multiplication tables after 18 months of interrupted learning. What we must care about, though, is that test scores predict long-term outcomes like high school graduation—things that really matter for young people’s lives—even when controlling for factors like race and socioeconomic background. Tests never captured everything about students’ school experiences, but they do provide meaningful signals. To pretend otherwise does a grave disservice to children and families, especially those who have been historically marginalized by our schools and who have been hardest hit by the pandemic by every measure.
Take Massachusetts: The raw number of students in grades 3-8 scoring in the lowest achievement category for math grew from 50,000 to 87,000. This is true in spite of the fact that fewer students took the test in 2021 compared to 2019—and the students who missed out on testing were also more likely to be those missing from school altogether due to the disruptions of the year. If these test scores paint a somewhat incomplete picture, it’s likely a rosier one than the reality.
The explosion of kids in that lowest achievement category indicates a real need for major, large-scale intervention. Students in that category should receive, according to the Commonwealth, “coordinated academic assistance.” The good news is that when students do get that substantial assistance, their long-term academic trajectories shift. With them, their likelihood of reaching milestones like high school graduation goes up. That’s great news. But giving so many children so much support won’t happen by accident.
The goal here is not a quick rebound. It is a rebuild. We should expect a 5-10 year journey focused on supporting students all around, from academics to mental health. Success will require purposeful investments to ensure that temporary losses do not become permanent.
How do we do that? We can agree that most of what happened during the early stages of the pandemic was beyond anyone’s control. But increasingly, the quality of experiences offered to our children are within our control. Most importantly, we can choose to level with parents and invite them to be our partners in the rebuilding effort, or we can brush the negative news under the carpet and hope that somehow these problems solve themselves. It would be irresponsible not to be honest. After all, parents are better positioned than anyone to help children correct course.
As a practical step, schools should consider using some of the federal funding appropriated for COVID recovery to invest in family support and engagement. Comprehensive parent-teacher conferences could be one starting point. Historically, these conversations have often been short and rushed. After the trials of the past 18 months, the usual 10-minute conference is woefully insufficient to take stock of a child’s progress and develop a forward-looking plan. Why not set aside at least half an hour for each family? Let’s use some of that recovery funding to offer teachers additional pay for extending the school year by one week, and use the time now to guarantee each family a thorough, collaborative conversation with their child’s teachers.
COVID has temporarily prevented our kids from experiencing childhood to its thrilling fullest. We cannot stand by and allow it to prevent them from reaching their fullest potential over the long term, too.