Newly elected officials must get straight to work, supporting students and schools

Election season is over for now, and incumbent and newly elected officials across the country are facing an uphill battle trying to help their communities recover from COVID-19.

The latest release of the Nation’s Report Card is more proof of the extensive disruption the pandemic has had on student learning and of the continued support that young people will need to meet academic expectations.

These results on the Nation’s Report Card, also know as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), are filled with detailed—mostly concerning—data about the pandemic’s impacts on schools nationally, in states, and in participating urban districts.

It will be essential for leaders at all levels—from classrooms to state houses—to understand what the data says about the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic and provide the help necessary to support recovery.

Math declined steeply in fourth and eighth grade, with eighth-graders posting historic declines. Reading scores dropped in both grades too, albeit not as steeply. Nearly 40 percent of eighth-graders are working below the Basic level in math, and about the same percentage of fourth-graders are working at that level in reading. The goal is to get all students working at the Proficient level, but so many young people are nowhere near that.

Looking across assessments

This latest report card offers a sobering look at the state of schools in the United States, but it’s important to view them along with other data to get a full picture of how students are doing and how we can help them.

States have been releasing their annual student achievement data over the past several months, and the federal government released other data in September, showing steep declines in reading and math among nine-year-old students.

All this follows the release of a study brief by the NWEA research team this summer looking at the progress of approximately eight million students across the country in grades 3–8 in reading and math. While the NWEA® research showed achievement was down from the start of the pandemic, students showed growth on MAP® Growth™ assessments in reading and math in 2021–2022 at rates comparable with prepandemic growth. The extent of that improvement varied widely by grade level and student group.

Not all assessments measure the same things. While MAP Growth shows how individual students progress over time, the Nation’s Report Card is a snapshot and compares achievement levels between different cohorts of students, such as fourth-graders in 2019 compared to fourth-graders in 2022.

Since NWEA data analyzes progress over time, researchers were able to estimate that it will take the average elementary school student three years to catch up—and much longer for older students if the rate of learning continues at the same pace.

The Nation’s Report Card and MAP Growth data both show historically marginalized students were most negatively impacted by the pandemic. The latest NAEP results show Black and Hispanic students had the largest score declines ever in fourth-grade math.

One clear takeaway from all the data we’ve been seeing is that there is a pressing need to improve math instruction. There is a growing consensus around how to teach reading, and many states and districts are enacting policies to support the use of evidence-based practices aligned to the science of reading. We need similar consensus around effective ways to teach math.

The U.S. Department of Education is convening with experts around the country to glean information about what works instructionally. We need to pay particular attention to approaches that seem to be improving student learning. For example, some evidence from the field shows tools that help assess student opportunity gaps and provide targeted instruction improve math achievement.

Research also indicates high-quality tutoring may help students make up lost ground. That seems toespecially be the case in early grades for reading and older grades in math.

On the NWEA Policy and Advocacy team, we believe there are three things we need to do collectively now:

1. Pick up the pace

We have to step up the pace of student learning, particularly for older students who aren’t rebounding as quickly as younger students. Those eighth-grade math students are now in high school. We have about three and half years to catch them up before they graduate.

To support this effort, the U.S. Department of Education has released a guide to best practices in acceleration efforts, and we also have to look to research and lessons from the field for information about what works.

Research shows one way to boost learning is by expanding instructional time for students and staffing these programs with well-trained teachers, personalizing instruction, using high-quality curriculum, and encouraging high attendance.

Other strategies that education leaders should explore include implementing evidence-based summer learning programs, investing in family-engagement strategies, and developing comprehensive data systems that track student progress throughout the grades.

2. Focus on students with the highest needs

The latest Nation’s Report Card highlights the need to focus on struggling learners, or those with particularly low achievement levels. The gaps between low- and high-performing elementary students are worrisome. It’s a gap that was growing—but it worsened during the pandemic. Historically marginalized students also have been severely impacted by the pandemic, which worsened opportunity gaps that preceded the pandemic. Those falling further behind will have so much trouble catching up if we don’t focus on addressing their opportunity gaps now.

The Aspen Institute recently released a report exploring ways to close racial opportunity gaps in schools. Key recommendations included taking steps to promote a sense of belonging among all students and supporting teachers in effectively meeting the needs of a diverse student body. Schools also need to ensure all students get equitable access to high-quality materials and rigorous coursework. In the report The Opportunity Myth, the nonprofit TNTP found students of color and low-income students were less likely to have access to high-quality resources and curriculum than others. That has to change.

An example of a strong policy aimed at addressing the problem can be found in Texas, where lawmakersenacted legislation requiring schools to provide tutoring specifically for students performing below established benchmarks on state assessments.

3. Give teachers help, too

Survey data accompanying the Nation’s Report Card found teachers reported high levels of burnout and low confidence with helping address students’ opportunity gaps. We need to support educators with high-quality tools to assess student needs and personalize learning as well as strong and sustained professional development relevant to their needs.

Policymakers also need to address school staffing shortages. Too many teachers are having to cover for colleagues or monitor the lunchroom instead of taking time to plan a lesson or provide extra support to struggling students. We have to take clear steps to improve the teacher pipeline, including by investing in innovative pathways, focusing on diversity, examining compensation, and using data to target shortages.

Time to lead

With the midterms behind us and new leaders taking up the mantle in local, state, and national offices, it’s vital that policymakers understand the critical education data available to them and use the data to guide decision-making.

Taking the time to understand the data, act on it, and help all students make the progress needed is the work before us all. If we fall short, our kids and our country will suffer—something we can’t afford to let happen. With the federal funding cliff looming, leaders also need to consider how to support students well past 2024.

We’d welcome the opportunity to hear from and collaborate with you. What are you seeing in the new NAEP data that you think warrants action? What policies and practices do you think are improving student outcomes in your community? Let us know. You can reach out on Twitter @NWEAPolicy.

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