Editorial: Testing reveals lockdown’s toll on US students

The Wall Street Journal

The pandemic lockdowns were a policy blunder for the ages and the economic, social and health consequences are still playing out. But the worst catastrophe was visited on America’s children, as the recent release of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress shows.

The 2022 NAEP test, often called the nation’s report card, found a record drop in learning across the U.S. since the last test in 2019. The tests measured proficiency in math and reading for fourth- and eighth-graders, and the harm from closed schools and online-only instruction is severe and depressing.

America’s schools weren’t doing all that well before the pandemic, but the lack of in-school learning made them worse. Eighth graders lost eight points on math since 2019, falling to an average 274 out of a possible 500. Fourth graders lost five points, to an average of 236 in 2022. Not a single state or large school district showed better math performance.

The news is little better on reading, with the average score for fourth and eighth graders dropping by three points. Nationwide, only 33% of fourth-graders and 31% of eighth-graders read at or above grade proficiency.

It’s hard to understate the human damage that these dry statistics represent. The learning loss is considerable and will take years to make up, if it ever is. Children who fall behind in reading skills have difficulty learning other subjects. The numbers also mean that millions of young Americans don’t know even the basics of writing and arithmetic.

The NAEP breaks down scores by states and school districts, though it is hard to compare scores by the degree of lockdowns. Every state lost ground to some extent, and different school districts across states often had different lockdown policies.

The NAEP results support the case for school choice. Charter school performance was uneven, but in at least 11 states, charter fourth-graders outperformed their non-charter counterparts in math in 2022, including in Alaska (+16 points), Nevada (+12 points) and North Carolina (+21 points). NAEP says reporting standards were not met for a charter comparison in 22 states.

Catholic schools tended to stay open during the pandemic, and on average their fourth- and eighth-graders scored higher in reading and math than public-school students. Department of Defense schools performed even better. Students deserve an escape route from schools that can’t prepare them for life and work.

These learning losses didn’t need to be as severe as they are because the school lockdowns didn’t have to continue as we learned more about COVID’s relatively small risk for children. Sweden kept its schools open and avoided the catastrophic learning loss of the U.S.

The school closures were a political decision, typically influenced by teachers unions. The political consequences now should be a backlash against the politicians who let the unions close the schools for so long.