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EDITORIAL: The pandemic didn’t create our education crisis

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The Delaware Department of Education released its annual report on statewide student testing for 2021 this month, and the findings quickly made their way into local headlines.

“State test scores continue to lag, with Black and Latino students still furthest behind,” the News Journal wrote, while Delaware Live went with “State education test scores dismal, described as ‘crisis.’” The Delaware State News struck a more measured tone with “Delaware students’ assessments reflecting pandemic challenges.”

And to be frank, the results on their face are concerning.

Jacob Owens
Delaware Business Times

Only about four in 10 students at Delaware public and charter schools are deemed to be reading at their appropriate grade level, while only about one in four are proficient at the appropriate math level. Students are tested annually in grades 3-8 and again in 11th grade. Less frequent testing in science and social studies didn’t produce better results in those subjects.

State education department leaders noted that test score averages were swayed by historically lower participation rates, as the tests moved online last year versus the traditional paper-and-pencil version. With most Delaware students still attending school virtually or in a hybrid format last year, there were many students with home internet access who didn’t participate in the testing.

For those reasons, leaders cautioned that comparing test scores against the preceding year was “not appropriate” due to “vastly different” student experiences. They are inarguably correct in that assertion, even for those who were able to easily move online.

Anyone who has school-age children knows just how different the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic were and the challenges that presented. Teachers had to adapt curriculums that were meant to be absorbed in person, students had to learn at home surrounded by distractions, and administrators had to guide the ship while trying to hold together expectations from everyone on all sides.

If the pandemic showed office employers that remote working could be successful outside of global health crises, it also surely showed educators and elected officials the value of in-person learning.

And while Delaware’s test scores are something that families, educators and officials should look at with concern about how to improve them, it’s important to keep in mind that we are not an island on this issue.

Reading test scores in Massachusetts, which has long led national rankings in proficiency, also fell by 6 percentage points for elementary and middle school students last year. In Pennsylvania, statewide testing last year showed about 37% of students there were on grade level or above for math while 55% were on grade level or above for reading. In Maryland, just 15% of public-school students passed the state’s assessment in math last year and 35% passed in English.

According to global consulting firm McKinsey & Co., which studied the issue, the pandemic left American students on average five months behind in math and four months behind in reading by the end of the 2020-21 school year. Those losses will only compound as students matriculate and educators are forced to make up for lost ground.

And the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for public education in the U.S., which has struggled to create lasting gains in academic achievement. That ranges from the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind program, which dramatically increased testing and teacher expectations, leading to criticisms of “teaching to the test,” or the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which spent more than $4 billion on state programs that also increased testing and common standards to varying degrees of success. 

Delaware was among the biggest winners of that Obama era program, getting $100 million in the first round of grants – yet statewide graduation rates actually decreased in the five years after receiving the funds.

Meanwhile, America continues to lag behind its global peers in public education, especially in math where it ranked well below the average score for member states of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2018, the latest available data. While it scored higher than the average for reading and scientific proficiency, Canadian and a number of different European students scored significantly higher than their American peers (Who knew Estonia is a beacon of public education, scoring in the Top 3 in all three subjects?)

I point these facts out so we don’t get too disgruntled with the teachers in our children’s classrooms in hearing the latest test results, the majority of whom work very hard to reach as many of their students as humanly possible. I’m a product of the Brandywine School District from two decades ago – in true Delaware fashion, state Education Secretary Mark Holodick was once my assistant principal – and I can assure you the same discussions and struggles were being had back then too.

The pandemic has made that challenge even more pronounced, so we do have work to do to help address the disparities in our education systems, to decrease the stress and workload on perpetually undercompensated teachers, and to build confidence and skills in our workers and leaders of tomorrow. Let’s start that conversation with open minds.

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