Post-pandemic learning loss is a lot like the national deficit. It is huge, it is exacerbated by political divisions, and nothing that’s currently being done about it will come close to solving the problem. Indeed, there’s no sugarcoating the setbacks that students have suffered. Along with plunging test scores, powerful forces—including poor student mental health, record-setting absenteeism (among students and teachers), and staffing shortages concentrated in high-poverty districts and positions—have conspired against any impactful academic recovery effort. Taken together, they paint a grim picture of the education sector in the years ahead.
But don’t tell that to the public relations mandarins working in state education offices. Based on a scan of press releases that they’ve issued thus far that have characterized their 2023 state assessment results, one could be forgiven for thinking that everything’s just fine. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s eagerness to disappear the pandemic far into the rearview mirror notwithstanding, consider the rosy spin coming from some of these states:
- California: “Given the ongoing drops in achievement appearing on many national tests and the relationship between student advantage and achievement, California’s statewide scores are particularly promising; the proportion of high-need students has also increased in California.”
- Connecticut: “The data show that for the first time since the pandemic, attendance improved, and chronic absenteeism rates declined from 23.7 percent in 2021–22 to 20.0 percent in 2022–23 resulting in approximately 18,000 more students attending school regularly in 2022–23. Improvements were evidenced in all grades and in all student groups.”
- Delaware: “Despite the challenges schools face, the state is seeing promise when disaggregating the data to look more closely at the district and school level. [One school district] saw gains in both ELA and math. At [an elementary school in this district] the gains were significant; 65 percent of students scoring proficient or higher in ELA, a 15 percentage point increase from last year. In math, 67 percent of students scored proficient or higher, up 13 percentage points from 2022. [The district’s high school] saw SAT growth in reading and math as well with 2023 proficiency higher than pre-pandemic levels in both subjects.”
- Georgia: “‘I am pleased to see continued evidence of Georgia’s academic recovery in this year’s [state test] results,’ State School Superintendent Richard Woods said. ‘Even for this year’s third graders, whose entire academic career has been impacted by the pandemic, we can see evidence of growth.’”
- Massachusetts: “The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released 2023 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) results today, showing continued academic recovery from the pandemic… ‘Pandemic learning loss is a national problem, but these results show signs of recovery thanks to the hard work of educators, students, families, and staff,’ said Education Secretary Patrick A. Tutwiler.”
- Michigan: “‘We continue to be encouraged by the gradual improvements in student achievement,’ said State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice. ‘Though the 2022–23 school year was far from normal…it was the most stable school year of the last four. Michigan’s educators worked hard to help students continue to rebound and to increase their learning.’”
- Oregon: “This year’s state summative test results show that our education system is stabilizing. Some student groups have achieved pre-pandemic levels in English language arts, mathematics, and science in Oregon districts.”
- Washington: “Today, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) released data from the spring 2023 state assessments, which are one indicator of continued pandemic learning recovery. Overall, the data indicate accelerated learning recovery in math in nearly all grades assessed, as well as in English language arts at the elementary level.”
Never mind the compelling evidence to the contrary. These state officials seem to be inclined to say, “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!” Just as schools and districts have gotten into the bad habit of withholding honest feedback from students and parents—through rampant grade inflation and social promotion among other academic gimmicks—state education departments are doing a disservice to local communities when they downplay the bad news and cheerlead mediocrity. At best, the rah-rah is premature until these states demonstrate real progress on the next NAEP.
This is not to say state leaders must be dour in their outlook, but they should be interested in conveying urgency about the long and difficult road ahead. The resistance to being forthright is frustrating because standardized testing is the best tool we currently have to ascertain a student’s trajectory and predict future performance. To be sure, remaining clear-eyed and sober in the face of adversity can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. For example, Colorado’s new education commissioner, Susana Cordova, appropriately laments the achievement gaps that continue to persist in her home state:
Unfortunately, large gaps remain between student groups, which reaffirms my commitment to continue the hard work of eradicating the long-standing disparities in opportunity and achievement. I see these scores as a continued call to action to ensure our students and educators have the support they need to meet our state standards.
Indiana education secretary Katie Jenner adopts a similar posture:
English language arts is an area where many students continue to need additional support, particularly our English learner and middle school students. We knew that experts were projecting years in recovery time, and yet, the urgency is real and requires us all to keep our foot on the gas pedal.
But the best of the bunch so far appears to be Arkansas, which led with the headline, “[State assessment] results show little to no rebound from pre-pandemic levels.” Unlike the syrupy notes struck by many of his colleagues, the serious tone imparted by education secretary Jacob Oliva is worth emulating:
These results are a wake-up call, and we must stop the red-light, green-light tug of war with implementation and act with urgency. It’s time we move forward and focus on evidence-based approaches outlined in [recent legislation] that will result in increased student learning. Our students deserve nothing less.
Despite Uncle Sam’s poor example, states should not be in the business of burnishing the subpar academic results caused by the nation’s lackluster response to Covid. If students are to stand a chance of getting back on track, it must start with our elected officials and their appointed officers in state education agencies insisting upon academic excellence, and not whitewashing what the data are trying to tell us.