COVID Accelerates the National Dumbing Down

by James A. Bacon

Drawing upon testing of 5.3 million students in all 50 states this fall, the Renaissance testing service found that students in some grades had fallen 7 weeks behind expectations for reading and as many as 12 weeks behind for math. 

The results reflect the disruptions to learning this spring caused by COVID-driven school closings followed by the long summer vacation. Results were not uniform. For some grades, reading scores performed close to expectations. But, with the exception of Asians who saw no decline, the findings for math among racial/ethnic groups were uniformly dismal. Whites lost significant ground, and blacks and Hispanics fared slightly worse. If there is a silver living, according to the Renaissance study, “How Kids Are Performing,” it’s that the accentuation of the black/white gap was relatively small.

Renaissance did not provide state-specific data, and the authors warned that patterns might vary state to state. But the study issued this warning: “Schools may need to dedicate additional time for large numbers of students to receive support in mathematics.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Unless the Old Dominion is a spectacular exception to the national trend, Virginia students fell behind in math. Although the Renaissance study did not say so explicitly, if students fell 12 weeks behind in math in the half year before the new school term, they are likely to slide even farther behind this year due to (1) insufficient grounding in foundational math concepts, and (2) continued disruptions to learning from COVID-related shutdowns this fall. In other words, students won’t catch up. They will fall even farther behind in math by the end of the year. This is an educational catastrophe of the first order.

If students have fallen 12 weeks behind in math, do we as a society have an obligation to extend the school year in order to help them catch up? Undoubtedly, there would be significant additional expense. At the same time, the expense is incalculable of an entire generation of school children suffering such an erosion in math skills — a loss in proficiency that could haunt them for the rest of their school years. I don’t know how much flexibility the Northam administration has in reallocating federal COVID aid dollars, but it strikes me that giving students more time to catch up and stay on track ought to be the priority.

(Hat tip: John Butcher)