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Pandemic Learning Loss is Real. Now What?

The results of Georgia’s annual standardized tests are in; let’s start with the good news:

The share of eighth-graders performing at grade level for math actually rose by 1 percentage point compared to the last test given before the pandemic.

And … well … the share of high school students deemed proficient in biology only decreased by 2 percentage points.

And – gulp – that’s about it.

The main takeaway from this year’s scores on the Georgia Milestones tests, given annually to students in grades 3 and up, is that they fell almost completely across the board from before the pandemic.

In many cases, they fell by a lot.

We obviously need school leaders to be honest about students’ learning loss, but that isn’t the position of state officials who want to establish a new post-pandemic baseline. These are the same officials who put a headline on the press release for this year’s scores touting an increase over 2021 results – just before urging “caution in making comparisons to 2021 results, due to reduced test participation and pandemic-related impacts on students’ learning environments.”

Forget about comparisons to 2021 for a moment. A comparison to 2019’s standardized tests, the last tests given before the pandemic, is necessary if we are to recognize learning loss from school closures and address it head-on.

Even if that comparison isn’t flattering. And it isn’t.

The following series of numbers may be collectively mind-numbing, but it’s important that parents, educators, taxpayers, voters – all of us – understand just how far behind Georgia’s students have fallen.
Reading scores were down in 2022 from 2019 in every grade level: by 9 points in third grade, 8 points in fourth grade, 3 points in fifth grade, 6 points in sixth grade, 8 points in seventh grade, 4 points in eighth grade, and 5 points in high school.

Longitudinal comparisons for the same cohorts of students are also instructive. Among this year’s eighth-graders, 70% were reading at or above grade level; in 2019, when they were in the fifth grade, the same group hit 73%. This year’s seventh-graders scored a pleasant surprise, rising by 3 points over their fourth-grade year. But this year’s sixth-graders fell alarmingly: to 55% reading proficiency, down from 73% when they were in the third grade.

Math wasn’t much better. Scores were down by 9 points for this year’s third-graders, 5 points for fourth-graders, 4 points for fifth-graders, 9 points for sixth-graders, and 8 points for seventh-graders – along with that 1-point increase for eighth-graders. In high school, scores were down 6 points for Coordinate Algebra and 3 points for Algebra I.

Here again, comparing cohorts across time demonstrates the learning loss that has set in. This year’s eighth-graders fell to 36% proficiency in math, compared to 41% when they were in the fifth grade. Seventh-graders fell by 14 points compared to their fourth-grade selves. Sixth-graders sank by 21 points vs. their proficiency as third-graders.

If alarm bells aren’t ringing in your head by now, something is wrong.

Now, it’s true that pre-pandemic comparisons aren’t the only ones worth making. To the extent comparisons to 2021 are worthwhile, it’s encouraging to see some gains. That suggests lost ground is being recovered, albeit slowly.

And none of this is a knock on teachers, who have worked through a historically difficult couple of years.

In fact, I can’t over-emphasize the following: It is possible for educators to be making up lost ground while, at the same time, students remain too far behind.

That is why all the blithe talk about new baselines and year-over-year gains should be considered unacceptable spin. The deficits spelled out here must be taken seriously, and efforts adjusted accordingly, if these students are to avoid a lifetime of diminished potential. Students need help. Teachers need new tools to help them with these new challenges.

That’s unlikely, if our education leaders go on pretending like pre-pandemic scores never happened.