COVID-19 Will Exacerbate Troubling NAEP Score Declines

COVID-19 Will Exacerbate Troubling NAEP Score Declines
(AP Photo/Matt York)

With schools across the country closed, the urgent issues are how to decrease the inevitable learning gap kids will experience with at-home learning, and how to plan for a safe return to school in the fall.

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Amidst these challenges, the recently released data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics, history, and geography for eighth graders across the country were troubling. The results demonstrated a continued downward trend in student achievement seen the last few years, not just in those subjects, but also in the fundamentals of reading and math. 

Why do these subjects matter? They provide students with the knowledge to understand issues important to their daily lives, including those associated with a pandemic.

For example, to battle this current pandemic, federal, state, and local officials are working together—or sometimes disagreeing—about how to re-open cities and states and whose role it is to do so. We are also in a presidential election year amidst a pandemic. The country is debating voting rights and changes to elections because of social distancing. While our elected officials in Congress are providing large amounts of economic relief to stem the tide of the economic downturn, we are starting to think about the long-term implications on the federal budget, debt, and our system of government.

Without the lessons of civics, history, geography, and having the fundamentals in reading and math, how would these leaders have the tools to make necessary, enlightened decisions? How would citizens have the knowledge to understand the role of government and participate in our democracy?

In 2019, only two in five Americans were able to name all three branches of government. And more than a third of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, according to the Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey.

To prepare for our country’s future, we must also appreciate its history—what decisions worked in the past, why they worked, and why some failed. In understanding these decisions, we are making more informed judgements for present day.

The results from the recent Nation’s Report Card don’t portend optimism.

In all three social science subjects—civics, history, and geography—more than one-quarter of eighth graders fell below basic standards, meaning they do not have even partial mastery of subject knowledge and skills. Only 25% and 24% of eighth-grade students met geography and civics proficiency levels, respectively; an inexcusable 15% met U.S. History proficiency levels, which dropped three percentage points since 2014, a statistically significant decline. 

These low scores highlight critical gaps in knowledge for students four years away from entering college or the workforce. 

Like too many other assessments of student knowledge, the results also highlighted alarming gaps between White-Black, White-Hispanic, and high and low performing students. In 2018, 31% of White students versus 9% of Black and 13% of Hispanic students met or exceeded civics proficiency levels; parallel gaps existed in geography and U.S. history. Similarly, average scores decreased more drastically for low-preforming students across all three tests. 

The 2019 NAEP eighth grade reading and math results showed flat or decreasing scores as well; closing the gap between particular populations continues to be a challenge. This is not a subject-specific issue. It is a broader interdisciplinary problem that should be a red alert going off across the country.

When we see backsliding in reading and math, it is no surprise that students are also backsliding in civics, geography, and history. Students struggling in a core subject area often struggle in others, particularly if they cannot read, interpret charts, or support claims with evidence.

The recent civics exam included a question asking students, “In addition to voting and being a candidate, what are two ways that citizens can be involved in the presidential campaigns and elections?” Only 26% of students were able to fully complete this question. 

Other states should follow the lead of Florida, Illinois, and Massachusetts, which are increasing civics instruction and assessing students to gauge their knowledge. We cannot lose sight of where students are and who is on track. We need to understand the depths of the gaps and determine targeted approaches to meet all students’ needs. Low expectations can never be normalized.

While these results are grave in any situation, COVID-19 presents a larger challenge that will exacerbate these poor results. As of May 6th, 48 states, 4 U.S. territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense

Education Activity (DoDEA) have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the academic year, affecting approximately 50.8 million public school students. Losing face-to-face instruction, combined with the unknown quality of online courses, will have a significant impact on learning, disproportionately impacting low-income and minority students.

When schools start up again in the fall, some level of online instruction is likely to be in place. According to a 2018 PEW study, 17% of teens aged 13 to 17 said they are often or sometimes unable to complete homework assignments because they do not have reliable access to a computer or internet connection. This rate jumps to 25% when just looking at black teens that agreed with this statement and 24% when looking at teens living in lower-income households. For students that were most at-risk of falling behind prior to COVID-19, potentially missing months of learning may have a catastrophic impact.

Putting all of this together makes an urgent case for federal, state, and local officials to invest in proven practices that have shown results. The right to rigorous instruction should not be reserved for AP and honors classes. A focus on high standards, effective instruction, and strong measurements ensures all students achieve at high levels. Ignoring these creates the opportunity for students to backslide even further.

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