State by state, it is difficult to draw a line between school closures and learning loss, as some states that have remained closed the longest have fared better, and vice versa. Previous research has shown a clearer relationship between school closures and learning loss at the district level, but at a news conference announcing the latest NAEP report, the commissioner of the National Statistics Center of the Education said, “There is nothing in this data that tells us there is a measurable difference in performance between states and districts based solely on how long schools are closed.
In New York, the nation’s largest school district, schools reopened in September 2020. There, average reading scores fell about one point for fourth graders and improved about one point for eighth graders; in math, fourth-grade scores fell nine points (statewide scores fell 12) and eighth-grade scores fell four points (statewide scores fell 12). State dropped by six). In Los Angeles, the second-largest district, schools remained closed through January 2021. There, average scores actually improved in fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade math, and eighth-grade reading, where they improved by nine points (to 257 from 248). Scores fell only in fourth-grade math (from 224 to 220).
In a vacuum, the decline of the pandemic looks like bad news, even if on a relatively small scale. But none of this happened in a vacuum. I mentioned the million deaths not to scare how much higher those numbers might have been had it not been for the school closures – the magnitude of that impact is, I believe, an open question – but just to emphasize the enormous and widespread human impact of the disease itself. And that impact was far greater than measured simply by mortality. More than 3.5 million Americans have been hospitalized, by one estimate, and likely at least as many have suffered from the long Covid. In the spring of 2020, the country’s unemployment rate skyrocketed from around 4% to almost 15%; for a brief period in April, six million new unemployment claims were filed each week. In a single quarter, US GDP fell 9%. Murder rates increased by 30%; fatal car accidents have also increased. Overdose deaths increased by 30% in 2020 and 15% in 2021. According to some research, rates of depression tripled in the United States when the pandemic first hit. Some 600,000 teachers have left the profession.
This is the world in which American students – most of them learning remotely for many months, many of them for almost a year and some for longer – have lost a handful of points when their reading and math exams, compared to their pre-pandemic peers.
“The sudden onset of the pandemic has been the most catastrophic event in recent US history, making it expected that there will not be something called” “weird” learning loss, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor recently wrote in The New Yorker. “The idea that life would just go on the same way it always has only underscores how there have been two distinct experiences of the pandemic,” she continued, emphasizing how the pandemic was harder on the poor and marginalized. navigate, compared to those for whom its side effects were shaken by wealth.
International comparisons provide another piece of context for declining test scores. In England, schools closed in spring 2020, reopening in some places in early summer and across the country in autumn (with an Omicron hiatus of around a month this winter 2021). In retrospect, that would have been a plausible but relatively aggressive approach to reopening schools in the United States, where many schools remained remote for much of the 2020-2021 school year. It also resulted in a six percentage point drop in skill scores, roughly comparable to the US experience. In other words, in England, with a near-optimal school reopening, they fared no better.
In the Netherlands, where schools were even less disrupted than in Britain, pupil performance fell by three percentage points – slightly better, but still below the standards set in the pre-pandemic years. At the more extreme end of the spectrum is Sweden, which hasn’t closed any schools at all and which, according to some reports, hasn’t seen such drops. But the country has also suspended its testing program, which means the data on which these claims could be based is quite fragile.
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