Oct 26, 2022

The pandemic learning losses.

The pandemic learning losses.
Photo by Santi Vedrí / Unsplash

New scores show students fell drastically behind during the pandemic.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Today, we're covering the results from the "Nation's Report Card," which showed significant drops in learning for fourth and eighth graders — tied to the pandemic — in both math and reading. We also have a major milestone and a reader question about Steve Bannon's sentence.

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Quick hits.

  1. John Fetterman (D) and Dr. Mehmet Oz (R) squared off in Pennsylvania's first and only Senate debate. We'll be covering the debate in tomorrow's edition of Tangle. (The debate)
  2. Former top Trump aide Hope Hicks was interviewed by the January 6 committee yesterday. (The interview)
  3. Adidas and The Gap ended their relationships with Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) after a string of antisemitic comments the rapper has made on social media and in various media appearances. (The relationship)
  4. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is withdrawing its letter to President Biden calling on him to couple military aid to Ukraine with a diplomatic push. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) blamed the letter's release on staff sending it "without vetting." (The letter)
  5. More than 500 protesters were indicted in Iran this week, including several who face potential death sentences. (The indictments)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Test scores. On Monday, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) released "The Nation's Report Card," an annual assessment of reading and math scores for American fourth and eighth grade students. The results were discouraging: Math scores for fourth and eighth graders on the nationally representative tests showed the largest declines since NAEP testing began in 1990. Reading scores also declined in both grades.

While federal officials often caution against tying student performance to any outlying factors, this time was unique. Peggy Carr, the National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner, attributed the "troubling" declines to the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on student achievement.

From USA Today:

In 2022, average reading scores in fourth and eighth grades decreased by three points from 2019, and average math scores in fourth and eighth grades decreased by five and eight points respectively, the test results show. The test, which involved 446,700 students at 10,970 schools, across all states at the beginning of the calendar year, is scored on a scale of 0 to 500. The 2022 results also show … the lowest-performing students performed even worse. And of particular concern, more students scored at what are considered "below basic" levels.

Typically, the NAEP thinks of a 1 or 2 point decline as a significant impact on student achievement. 10-point declines are roughly equivalent to losing a full year of learning. On this assessment, there was an 8-point decline in math. Nearly four in 10 eighth graders failed to grasp basic math concepts, while reading scores hit their lowest levels since 1992.

According to Carr, students’ scores didn't directly correlate to how long schools were closed or whether in-person classes were happening. That's in part because, when schools finally did open, many teachers or students ended up missing class due to Covid-19 outbreaks.

“Let me be very clear: These results are not acceptable,” Miguel Cardona, the new education secretary under President Biden, said. “We need to continue to approach the task of catching all of our students up with the urgency that this issue warrants. We must redouble our efforts to accelerate student recovery."

The results of the assessment are another indicator of the pandemic's destructive impact on learning. Students in the high school class of 2022 also achieved the lowest average score on the ACT test in over three decades. However, ACT scores had already been declining steadily for five years. The average test score in 2022 was 19.8 out of 36. In 2021, it was 20.3; in 2020, it was 20.6; and in 2019, it was 20.7.

The latest report from the NAEP drove a range of new commentary about how we navigated the pandemic and our children's learning. Today, we'll take a look at some opinions from the right and left, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left worries about the already underserved students who are falling even farther behind.
  • Some emphasize that losses occurred across the country, regardless of how Covid-19 was handled.
  • Others say we need to smartly use allocated federal funds to close the gap.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board said "it's no surprise" that educational achievement suffered everywhere.

"But it’s still distressing to see the desolate picture of students’ academics and ever-widening gap between low- and high-performing students revealed by the latest national proficiency test scores," the editorial board said. "California students fared slightly better than students in most other states, with small declines in math but less significant changes in reading. However, California students are still underperforming compared with national standards. Most troublingly, low-performing students’ scores declined at much higher rates than higher-performing students. For example, the average score in 2022 for students at Los Angeles Unified schools who are eligible for the free lunch program was 35 points lower than students who didn’t qualify for that program. In 2002, that difference was only 14 points.

"It’s clear that a multi-pronged approach to boosting student performance will be necessary, but state and local educators and policymakers should ensure that decisions about how to allocate resources are driven by data and other evidence. California schools received $15 billion from the American Rescue Plan," they wrote. "The state created the $4.6-billion Expanded Learning Opportunity Grant in 2021, issuing a set of guidelines for districts to spend on designated support such as additional staff, but it’s up to districts to come up with plans that meet their needs... Now that educators have the funds and the data to help guide them, they should use that money wisely. Our children’s future depends on it."

In The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson argued that it wasn't just blue states who suffered serious learning loss.

"It turns out that all the bitter back-and-forth between red and blue states about how quickly to reopen schools during the covid-19 pandemic was nothing but political theater, as far as test scores are concerned," Robinson said. "Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, for example, made a big show of reopening their states’ schools in the fall of 2020, with DeSantis going so far as to threaten to withhold funding from school districts that did not comply. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, on the other hand, moved more slowly, conditioning the return to in-person instruction on the level of covid-19 infection in a given county. But the NAEP report, based on testing this spring, showed that student performance suffered equally despite the different approaches.

"Math scores for fourth-graders dropped by four points in California, five points in Florida and five points in Texas," Robinson said. "For eighth-graders, scores dropped by six points in California, seven points in Florida and seven points in Texas. Scores in reading in those three states also moved in lockstep, falling by a point or two. Political posturing might have mattered to governors who’d like to be president someday, but it made no difference to the millions of children in the nation’s schools. From the students’ point of view, there was no 'right way' to blunt the impact of the pandemic. All strategies, we now know, were equally futile."

In The Hill, Javaid Siddiqi said we're failing our most vulnerable students.

"While reviewing the report, some statistics jumped out at me: that Black students experienced a mathematics score drop seven points higher than their white peers; that, despite showing steady gains for the last 20 years prior to the pandemic, Black and Hispanic students’ scores have regressed to where they were in 1999; that students who were already struggling before the pandemic showed the most dramatic declines," Siddiqi said. "These results, while concerning, are not surprising. They mirror other recent studies that have found that schools attended by predominantly Black and Hispanic students — which we know tend to have less funding and resources even in the best of times — were more negatively impacted than predominately white schools.

"In addition to addressing the immediacy of this pandemic-related learning loss, we must also consider long-term strategies to ensure our systems are built to effectively support all students," Siddiqi wrote. "Research has shown unequivocally that educators of color increase the performance of all students, particularly students of color. Similarly, having school leaders of color creates pathways that lead to better outcomes for students of color as well. In fact, we know that having a diverse educator workforce is a benefit to all students and communities... While these results are alarming, and we should be prepared for more of the same when state-level NAEP results are released in November, all is not lost. We have strategies that can close these gaps — as well as time-sensitive federal relief funding to adopt these approaches."

What the right is saying.

  • The right says we failed our children with poor policy decisions, and blames many Democratic politicians.
  • Some emphasize the differences in scores between public and private schools.
  • Others say the data shows how disastrous remote learning really was.

National Review's editors said we "failed the children of the pandemic."

"The declines were not evenly distributed nationwide," the editors wrote. "New York City, which had longer periods of Zoom school and imposed masks on children until very recently, experienced a record drop in math scores. Washington, D.C., and Maryland saw double-digit declines in fourth- and eighth-grade math. Meanwhile, Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis, an early opponent of school closures, is spiking the football. Florida achieved its highest-ever rankings in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. The federal government spent $123 billion last year on public schools in an effort to help children catch up from Covid-era learning loss. These test results show the effort failed.

"Democrat-led areas had longer school closures," they said. "The reckoning for this failure has to be system-wide. The CDC allowed its own recommendations on in-person education to be shaped by lobbyists from the American Federation of Teachers. Experts, acting in concert with Democratic state officials, were so anxious to flatter teachers as an extension of the white-collar Zoom class that they have surrendered their reputation as defenders of public education to Republicans such as DeSantis, Georgia’s Brian Kemp, and Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin. Parents are already making their own choices. In 2022, 2 million fewer students enrolled in public schools in America. A decades-long decline in parochial-school enrollment has been reversed. Private schools that stayed open and provided parents with free choices about masks and vaccines are thriving."

The Washington Examiner said the test scores illustrate the "disaster of distance learning."

"Chalk this up once again to Democrats' obsession with rewarding political allies at the expense of the public," the Examiner said. "Although there are surely other culprits — in Virginia, for example, Democratic appointees watered down educational standards starting in 2015, followed by precipitous declines in proficiency — the obvious culprit for most of the national decline is distance learning during COVID. And there's no question that the closures contributed significantly to the decline in learning. There are two proofs of this. First, Catholic schools almost everywhere were open full time by the fall of 2020, and on aggregate, the data show that they avoided the worst of the learning loss, avoiding declines in proficiency in fourth grade math and eighth grade reading.

"Moreover, states that kept more schools open experienced smaller declines in proficiency than their peers — a statistically significant result that this chart illustrates graphically," they said. "Once it was clear that COVID was not a major threat to children, that they were neither likely to suffer severe symptoms nor to pass the disease to others, every schoolhouse in America should have reopened immediately for in-person instruction... Unfortunately, special interests run many state educational bureaucracies, and of course, special interests positively own the Biden administration. Government emails obtained by journalists damningly demonstrate that President Joe Biden's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even reversed its scientific judgments about school closures based on pressure from the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union."

In Deseret News, Bethany Mandel said it is bad policy from the privileged, not Covid-19, that hurt students.

"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," Mandel wrote. "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," she wrote. "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."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

It's a really difficult report to see.

Throughout the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about the long-term impact of remote learning and school closures. And as worried as some of the most ardent critics were, I think these test scores actually paint a more troubling picture than many imagined. A math decline equivalent to nearly an entire year of learning will put tens of millions of K-12 students behind for the rest of their time in school. Some, of course, will catch up. But it will take several years, if not more, to do that.

Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. I wrote regularly about my belief that students should have gone back to school sooner — and that, by summer of 2021, even masking them was a questionable policy. In July of 2021, I wrote this:

The highest-end estimate for Covid-19 deaths among children is about 500, though the official tally is 335. The CDC estimates that 600 kids died of the flu during the 2017-2018 season. But recent studies, including the latest in England, indicate that — unlike deaths in adults — we could be overcounting Covid-19 deaths in children. 99.995% of the 469,982 kids in England who got Covid-19 survived. Of the 61 deaths linked to a positive Covid-19 test, the study found only 25 were actually caused by the illness. Furthermore, of those 25 children, 15 had underlying serious illnesses. Study after study has shown kids’ risk of serious Covid-19 illness is extremely low.

The tricky part about keeping schools open was never really about the kids, though. Even if students have been mostly safe from serious Covid-19, teachers, administrators, janitors and other staff weren't. And, of course, a lot of kids live in homes with elderly or otherwise high-risk family members, making the risks of them bringing the virus home very high.

Still, the learning loss is a stark reminder that nearly all policy upsides come with downsides, too. In a crude manner, policymakers had to weigh how many potential deaths or serious illnesses among family and staff were worth a certain level of learning loss for students. Anyone who confidently opines on where that line is should check their ego. I certainly don't envy the position policymakers and administrators were put in.

If we could go back and have a redo, though, there are plenty of things I think we could have done differently. The most obvious is that we should have emphasized in-person learning and put most of our Covid-19 testing resources into getting kids back into schools. Rather than default to distance learning and set bars for returning to the classroom, a more holistic policy may have been defaulting to in-person learning and using testing to decide when to send kids home. The strain distance learning put not just on students, but on low-income parents who relied on school for childcare and lunches, is hard to overstate.

Other things that were obvious then have been borne out now: Higher-performing students were more likely to have a computer or tablet at home, high-speed internet, and a quiet room to participate in class from. In a Covid-19 re-do, federal and state funding could have prioritized either closing those gaps, or simply keeping kids in school for in-person learning who didn't have the space and resources to reasonably participate in classes at home.

Again, none of this is simple, but the results — a wave of learning loss on top of two years of parents being strained by childcare — were obvious to parents and critics of remote learning at the time.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Steve Bannon just got slapped on the wrist by a judge, but I was surprised that the judgment didn't include forcing him to submit to the Congressional subpoena. Why not?

— John, Oberlin, Ohio

Tangle: Well, in simple terms, you can't force anyone to testify. The "forcing" is the punishment Bannon got: the threat of jail time and a fine. If he is willing to serve jail time and pay the fine, he's served the punishment for refusing to comply with the subpoena, and that is basically as far as the court can go.

For what it's worth, I think part of Bannon's case was a bit more complicated than it was often made out to be. Obviously, he was in contempt of Congress, and refused to comply with the subpoena. And as I've said before I think his defense (that all his conversations with the president were privileged) was rather farcical. But Bannon did hire a legal team, engage the committee in dialogue, and said he was willing to testify if the issue about the privileged conversations was resolved. His lawyers also benefited from a huge mistake by the government prosecutors, who, while trying to retrieve emails and phone logs of Bannon's lawyer Robert Costello, accidentally filed the records of a different man by the same name.

It's also worth noting that the Jan. 6 committee opted against a civil lawsuit to enforce its subpoena, and that Bannon — as the judge put it — seemed to be relying on his lawyer's advice, rather than acting on his own in defiance of the committee.

For now, though, Bannon is free pending appeal, and has suffered few consequences for his actions except a $6,500 fine. I would love to see him testify, and agree that (unless he serves actual time) it is a slap on the wrist. But if he is willing to eat the punishment there is really no other plausible legal recourse.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The number of disabled people in the workforce has surged, according to new research by the New York Fed. Likely because of long Covid, some 900,000 disabled people have entered the workforce since 2020. Right now, with a hot labor market, employers are more likely to accommodate their needs. But some people worry that as the economy cools, those employers may become less accommodating. There were 1.05 million more disabled working-age Americans in August 2022 compared to January 2020, according to the data, which was compiled by economist Richard Deitz. Axios has the story.


  • 70%. The percentage of kids in the NAEP survey who said they had learned remotely during the last part of the previous year.
  • 41. The number of states where math scores for fourth graders declined.
  • 10,000. The number of schools sampled in the survey.
  • $123 billion. The overall investment the federal government made in schools last year.
  • $2,400. The cost, per student, of that investment.
  • 20%. The amount of that funding districts are required to spend on academic recovery.

Have a nice day.  

An injured hiker in Colorado was rescued after a train passenger spotted her from his window. The hiker, a woman from New Mexico in her 20s, had been missing for two days after taking a fall down a cliff face. The rider alerted the crew of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge diesel engine and then notified the train inspector, in a motor car behind them. The inspector, Delton Henry, was able to stop and communicate with the woman. She had spent the last two days trying to flag down trains before being noticed. A CareFlight helicopter evacuated the woman and she is now recovering in the hospital. NPR has the story.

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