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Education in a Pandemic Year

There is as yet limited national data concerning the effects on student learning during the pandemic year 2021. NWEA (formerly, the Northwest Education Association), a non-profit organization in Portland, Oregon, has conducted some analysis with their proprietorial assessments that indicate that Grade 8 median reading achievement in spring 2021 was 3 percentiles below the median in 2019. Their analysis also points to the usual socio-economic differences, with Black student achievement declining by 6 percentiles, Hispanic declining by 5 percentiles, White, non-Hispanic, student achievement declining by 3 percentiles and Asian-American student achievement declining by a single percentile. In addition they found that students in low poverty schools experienced a decline of 2 percentiles, while students in high poverty schools experienced a decline three times as great, 6 percentiles.


Sadly, these are the usual socio-economic gaps. Not only do schools better prepare White, non-Hispanic, and Asian-American students than their Black and Hispanic peers, under the pressure of the pandemic, things have gotten differentially worse against a background of a year-to-year decline before the pandemic.


It would be unwise to simply translate the NWEA data to that of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the gold standard in these matters. We might, however, attempt an approximation.


In the 2019 NAEP grade 8 reading assessment, 19% of White, non-Hispanic, student achievement was measured as below Basic. These students had not been taught to read at the level expected of middle school students. This was the case for nearly half—47%—of Black students, 38% of Hispanic students (80% of whom are Mexican-American) and 15% of Asian/Pacific Islander students, who are chiefly Asian Indian, Chinese or Filipino. If we assume from the NWEA and other reports that there was a decline between 2019 and 2020, we can take as a conservative basis for estimating that decline the decline in NAEP scores from 2017 to 2019. If we do this, we find that the percentage of White, non-Hispanic, students scoring below Basic on NAEP would have increased from 19% to 21%; the change for Black students would be from 47% to 53%; for Hispanic students from 38% to 42%, and for Asian/Pacific Islander students little if any change. These are quite similar to the NWEA results. We can also observe that at the other end of the scale, the percentages of students assessed as Advanced in grade 8 reading, there would be no change for any of the groups (except a slight improvement among Asian/Pacific/Islander students). In other words, the effect of the pandemic was greatest among those students most in need of additional education resources.


It has long been apparent that gender is an important category of analysis in these matters, and that, in particularly, male Black students are often at risk of not achieving standard levels of achievement in basic skills. If we perform a similar analysis to that above, focusing on male students, we find that the percentage of White, non-Hispanic, male students scoring below Basic would have increased between 2019 and 2021 from 24% to 28%; the increase for male Black students would be from 53% to 58%; for Hispanic students from 43% to 48%, and for male Asian/Pacific Islander students from 19% to 21%. We can again observe that at the other end of the scale, in regard to the percentages of students assessed as Advanced in grade 8 reading, there was no change for any of the groups (except, again a slight improvement among Asian/Pacific/Islander students). In other words, the effect of the pandemic was greatest among those male students most in need of additional education resources, including well over half of male Black students.


Repeating these calculations for students either eligible or not eligible for the National Lunch Program that is, for students living in relatively impoverished households and those in relatively prosperous households, we find that among those eligible for the National Lunch Program the percentage of White, non-Hispanic, students scoring below Basic would have increased from 31% to 33%; the change for Black students would be from 51% to 55%; for Hispanic students from 42% to 46%, and for Asian/Pacific Islander students from 26% to 29%. We can also observe that at the other end of the scale, the percentages of eligible students assessed as Advanced in grade 8 reading, there was no change for any of the groups (except, again, a slight improvement among Asian/Pacific/Islander students, statistics concerning whom are strongly influenced by the highly educated, high income, Asian Indian group).


Among students from relatively prosperous households, those ineligible for the National Lunch Program, the percentage of White, non-Hispanic, students scoring below Basic would have increased from 14% to 17%; the change for Black students would be from 33% to 38%; for Hispanic students from 26% to 29%, and for Asian/Pacific Islander students from 9% to 8%. We can also observe that at the other end of the scale, the percentages of eligible students assessed as Advanced in grade 8 reading, there was no change for any of the groups (except, again, a slight improvement among Asian/Pacific/Islander students).


Most (58%) male Black students eligible for the National Lunch Program did not reach the Basic NAEP level in grade 8 Reading in 2019. Projecting that category as above, after the pandemic, the percentage for 2021 is 64%, nearly two-thirds. None would score at the Advanced level. This is on conservative assumptions. It might well be worse (although it is unlikely to be better). And it could be getting worse as the pandemic continues, especially among this age group.


The broader social effects of these projections are tragic. Male students who cannot read well in middle school are at risk of not graduating from high school and, therefore, of not going on to college, of spending their shortened adult lives in unskilled, low-paid labor, insufficient to support a family above the poverty line. And so unto their children.


The public education system of the United States has been subjected by the pandemic to what amounts to a stress test. Most of its components have not done well; one—that responsible for the education of Black students—has failed. As with the stress tests of the banking sector, such an outcome requires action, in this case an emergency injection of the resources needed: among others, specifically trained educators, extended school hours, extended school weeks and school years, in many cases, food. Unsuccessful banks can be replaced; children’s futures are irreplaceable.


Michael Holzman

September, 2020

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