Pandemic learning loss adds up for California students

It’s no secret that distance learning during protracted COVID school closures delivered more distance than learning for California students.

But the impacts of months separated from teachers and classrooms, and the challenges ahead, are only starting to come into focus.

A new analysis of test results found that California middle schoolers dipped a little below grade level for English during the 2020-21 school year, when most public schools were closed because of the pandemic. That isn’t optimal but, under the circumstances, it’s hardly shocking. Student test scores had risen for five straight years before the pandemic, so with a little extra focus on reading and writing, students can regain lost ground.

Math, on the other hand, was a disaster.

Eighth graders scored, on average, at a fifth grade level for math skills on the state’s benchmark Smarter Balanced test in 2021, according to an analysis published by EdSource, a nonprofit news organization that reports on California schools.

“Many still needed to learn to divide fractions, to reason with ratios, and to analyze proportional relationships,” wrote David Wakelyn, an education consultant who helped the National Governors Association develop Common Core, the college- and career-readiness standards for reading and math used in California and 40 other states.

The math results are alarming in part because this cohort of students already was lagging a year behind grade level before COVID. Now high school freshmen, they have a steeper hill to climb if they want a shot at careers in high-paying competitive fields like science, technology and engineering – key pillars of California’s 21st century economy.

Catching up won’t be easy for the Class of 2025, but they will suffer permanent harm if they don’t, with ripple effects across the US economy.

Rick Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, told EdSource that COVID learning loss could cost these students 6% to 9% in lifetime earnings and, in turn, shave 3% to 4% from the nation’s GDP.

When the overall results were released in January, showing that fewer than half of elementary and secondary students met grade-level English standards and barely a third met grade-level math standards, state education officials noted that just 1 in 4 students in grades three through eight and 11 took the Smarter Balanced tests in 2021.

It is possible lower participation skewed the results. There’s little doubt a year or more of isolation and Zoom learning hurt students, especially the youngest children. But the stakes are too high to write off bleak scores as an aberration and hope for a better outcome next year.

Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a hefty increase in K-12 funding in his budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and state lawmakers are considering a block grant program to promote training and mentorship for math and science teachers. In anticipation of those additional resources, it isn’t too soon for school districts to be thinking about summer school, expanded tutoring and adding classroom aides to help struggling students make up for lost learning.

These youngsters are California’s next generation of craftsmen and entrepreneurs, teachers and community leaders. Their lives were upended by COVID. We can’t allow them to be left behind.

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