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COVID-Related Learning Loss in US Mirrors Global Trend


FILE - A substitute teacher at the Greenfield Intermediate School in Greenfield, Ind., teaches on Dec. 10, 2020.
FILE - A substitute teacher at the Greenfield Intermediate School in Greenfield, Ind., teaches on Dec. 10, 2020.

Providing further proof that U.S. children suffered significant learning loss when schools were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Assessment Governing Board released a report Wednesday that showed test scores measuring achievement in U.S. history and civics fell significantly between 2018 and 2022.

The tests, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as the "nation's report card," were given to thousands of eighth-grade students across the country. Scores on the U.S. history assessment were the lowest recorded since 1994, while the scores on the civics test fell for the first time ever.

Only 13% of students tested in U.S. history were considered proficient, meaning that they had substantially mastered the material expected of them. That was 1 percentage point lower than in 2018. Another 46% tested at the NAEP "basic" level, meaning they had partial mastery of the material, down 4 percentage points. The remaining 40% of students tested did not meet the bar for basic knowledge, an increase of 6 percentage points.

In civics, 20% of students tested qualified as proficient, and 48% had basic knowledge of the material — both down 1 percentage point from 2018. Another 31% failed to demonstrate even basic knowledge, an increase by 4 percentage points over 2018.

In both cases, declines in proficiency were concentrated among lower-performing students, while achievement among the top 25% of students was little changed.

Further breakdowns of the data indicated that declines were notably larger among racial minorities and lower-income students, indicating that the impact of the pandemic on educational achievement was not evenly distributed across the population.

Echoes of past warnings

The results issued Wednesday, like those of other NAEP assessments released last year, demonstrated that a decline in educational achievement was exacerbated by lengthy school closures during the pandemic.

In a statement, National Assessment Governing Board Chair Beverly Perdue, a former governor of North Carolina, said the results should be a call to action.

"The wake-up calls keep coming," she said. "Education leaders and policy makers must create opportunities for students to gain the knowledge and skills they need to catch up and thrive. The students who took these tests are in high school today and will soon enter college and the workforce without the knowledge and skills they need to fully participate in civic life and our democracy."

U.S. lags in education

Even before the pandemic took hold, experts were sounding alarms about the state of education in the U.S. In 2019, the year before pandemic-related shutdowns began, results of the Program for International Student Assessment, commonly known as PISA, showed U.S. students lagging behind their peers in East Asia and Europe.

The results ranked U.S. students 13th in reading, 18th in science, and 37th in mathematics when compared to a global sample of their peers.

Consistently at the top of each category were China, where only four mainland provinces participated, and Singapore. The U.S. consistently trailed its northerly neighbor, Canada, in all three categories. It also lagged the English-speaking United Kingdom and Australia in all categories except reading.

'New human crisis'

The U.S. was not the only country where learning suffered because of the coronavirus pandemic. In January, the World Bank issued a report describing pandemic-related learning loss as a "mass casualty event" that, at one time or another, forced 1.4 billion students around the world to miss significant time in the classroom.

Stephen Heyneman, professor emeritus of international education policy at Vanderbilt University and the editor in chief of the International Journal of Educational Development, told VOA that the pandemic-related education crisis is "the worst we've had in my lifetime."

In an editorial published in the May edition of the journal, an editorial board made up of nine researchers from universities worldwide assessed evidence of the pandemic's impact on education and concluded that the world "is on the verge of a new human crisis."

The researchers confirmed that in the relatively wealthy industrialized countries, known as the Global North, the poor felt pandemic-related educational impacts most deeply, while financially well-off families often could mitigate much of the impact on students.

The news was worse for the relatively poorer countries, often referred to as the Global South.

"In the Global South, the learning challenges have proved multi-dimensional and much harder to tackle, given the triple burden of schooling deprivation, learning inequality and learning poverty," they found.

The disparities, first noted early in the pandemic, have continued, the researchers found. "The consensus view is that, despite many promising innovations, learning shortfalls have persisted or even increased, three years into the pandemic."


Asked how the U.S. had performed during the pandemic compared with other developed nations, Heyneman said that "comparison evidence, so far, is too little for me to make any generalizations."

However, he said, he and his colleagues have noticed — and been frustrated by — a common practice that has been adopted by most public school systems around the world as they have reopened.

Rather than assessing where students had pandemic-related deficits and working to correct them before continuing on with standard curriculums, schools have consistently attempted to simply restart, placing students in the classes and grade levels that correspond to their ages rather than to their actual educational attainment.

"They have not tested the learning loss in any systematic way, and when they have tested, they often haven't released the scores," he said. "And whether or not they have tested, they have not treated the results as an emergency. That makes me furious."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that hundreds of children were tested. In fact, thousands were tested.