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Perspective: Bad policy, not COVID-19, made children’s test scores decline

Newly released scores prove what some of us have been saying all along. It was a mistake to close schools

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Rachel Keenan takes a live class online at her home in San Francisco in March 19, 2020.

Rachel Keenan takes a live class online at her home in San Francisco in March 19, 2020. Newly released test scores show a steep learning loss as a result of pandemic policies.

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

We have more bad news about American kids to start off the week: Newly released test scores show a steep learning loss as a result of our pandemic policies.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, tests a broad sampling of fourth and eighth graders and has measured their performance since the early 1990s. The students did worse in both both math and reading, with just about a quarter of eighth graders proficient in math, compared to 34% proficiency in 2019.

Not that 34% proficiency was something to celebrate. But that’s the point. During the pandemic, scores that were already anemic plunged even more. It’s not hyperbole to call this decline catastrophic, and scores fell in nearly every state.

As The New York Times explained, “Fourth graders fared only slightly better, with declines in 41 states. Just 36% of fourth graders were proficient in math, down from 41%.

“Reading scores also declined in more than half the states, continuing a downward trend that had begun even before the pandemic. No state showed sizable improvement in reading. And only about one in three students met proficiency standards, a designation that means students have demonstrated competency and are on track for future success.”

We’re going to be told that it was the “pandemic” that did this to kids, but the reality is, it was our response to the pandemic that created this situation. And the result was entirely avoidable and foreseeable. 

Many of us have been warning about this outcome for two years.

The News York Times said, “The test results could be seized as political fodder — just before the midterms — to re-litigate the debate over how long schools should have stayed closed, an issue that galvanized many parents and teachers.”

Great. That’s as it should be.

This idea that we shouldn’t be litigating who was responsible for school closures is being floated by the people who are in the hot seat right now, or people who should be. This is litigation that American parents — and their kids — are owed.

How did those at the head of federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in addition to those working in education policy nationally and on a state level (not to mention their media defenders), get our COVID-19 response so wrong?

The answer can be explained in one word: privilege. 

Remember the catch phrase we used to constantly hear pre-COVID-19 from the progressive left? We were constantly admonished to “check your privilege.” We don’t hear that much anymore. That’s because privilege was on full display with what they advocated as an appropriate COVID-19 response.

And the least privileged of our society bore the brunt of choices made by the privileged.

According to the Times, “(F)or the country’s most vulnerable students, the pandemic has left them even further behind. The drops in their test scores were often more pronounced, and their climbs to proficiency are now that much more daunting.” 

Why is that? Because many students were in single-parent homes without robust support systems. There was no mom or dad sitting at the dining-room table trying to help them log onto Zoom or work through a math worksheet; many of these parents were essential workers out delivering packages and food to those who had the privilege of working from home.

When these kids had problems, there was no one around to help them, so they just didn’t log in. Of course these kids have fallen even farther behind.

It wasn’t that Zoom learning (an already inadequate solution) wasn’t happening in these homes; there was no learning at all taking place.

Those in positions of power and privilege who set education policy were completely disconnected from this existence. If they even had school-aged children, they were using their privilege to make sure their children didn’t fall behind by sending them to private schools, hiring tutors or doing the tutoring themselves. They simply couldn’t fathom that there were parents who could not do the same.

For millions of American kids, those education gaps have turned into chasms the size of the Grand Canyon, and it’s unlikely that the majority of those who have fallen behind will be able to catch up to where they should be.

One thing is for sure: These kids certainly won’t catch up while the arsonists are in charge of the fire recovery.

We need a reckoning in order to clean up the mess.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”