Parents don't grasp the full academic damage from COVID's disruption, according to study

The 74 takes a closer look at a USC paper that claims that grade inflation and pandemic leniency are shielding the true extent to which children have fallen behind.

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black and white photo illustration of parents looking oblivious despite test scores decreasing

Illustration by Eamonn Fitzmaurice

Last week, as leading education experts gathered — again — to ponder the nation's sluggish recovery from pandemic learning loss, one speaker put the issue in stark relief. 

"This is the biggest problem facing America," Jens Ludwig, a University of Chicago professor, said flatly. Nonetheless, he told those assembled at the Washington, D.C., event sponsored by the think tank Aspen Institute, "We do not have our hair on fire the way it needs to be."

That disconnect is the subject of a new paper released Monday that further explores what many have labeled an "urgency gap." To pinpoint the extent of the gap, the authors talked to parents about the signals they're getting from teachers and schools about their children's progress. Parents expressed little concern about lasting damage from the pandemic and typically thought their children were doing well in school — a view that researchers say is belied by dismal state and national test scores. 

The issue is "genuinely vexing," said Morgan Polikoff, an associate education professor at the University of Southern California and the paper's lead author.  

"Parents are overwhelmingly getting the message from grades and teachers that kids are doing fine-to-great," he said. He attributes that upbeat outlook to how little parents pay attention to standardized test scores — the "external measures" that matter most to researchers. "We just never heard anything about standardized tests from the folks we interviewed."

Lost in the confusion

The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed historic declines in math and flat performance in reading. According to this year's spring test results, pandemic recovery remains elusive for some states. Several have continued to lose ground in reading and most have not surpassed pre-COVID performance in math. Last week's release of international scores show U.S. students dropped 13 points in math between 2018 and 2022. 

Ludwig argues that U.S. students have made such little progress that the $190 billion Congress appropriated to address the COVID crisis is insufficient and lawmakers should find another $75 billion to fund high-dosage tutoring.  

"If we don't remediate this pandemic learning loss, this cohort of 50 million kids will experience reduced lifetime earnings of something like $900 billion," he said.

Those messages, however, don't always get to parents. 

Given the gauntlet of tests schools administer, it's easy for parents to get lost, said Meredith Dodson, executive director of San Francisco Parent Action, a group that advocated for schools to reopen and has recently pushed for improvements in the district's reading program.

For many parents, "​​it's hard to understand all the acronyms — this test versus that test, the state versus the national," she said. "Parents just really want to trust their teachers. Is my kid on grade level or not?"

Even some parents who knew their children's standardized test scores tended to put more stock in grades, Polikoff found. One parent interviewed for the study knew that a majority of students scored higher than her son on the NWEA MAP test in math. But, she said, "his knowledge is much greater than that" because he received a 3 on a scale of 1-3 on his report card, which "means they've achieved the mastery or whatever." 

Researchers have documented a growing discrepancy  between grade point averages and standardized test scores, especially since the pandemic. One report from three organizations — EdNavigator, Learning Heroes and TNTP — showed an increase in B grades since the pandemic even among students who performed below grade level and were chronically absent.

'Kids are not stupid'

Schools have also made it easier to do well, a vestige of pandemic-era incentives to get students to complete their work. Dan Goldhaber, director of the CALDER Center at the American Institutes for Research — and the father of two school-age children — said he's increasingly "astounded" at how many chances students get to bring up their grades.

"Kids are not stupid," he said. "They're going to learn that, 'No, I don't need to study real hard for this test because I can just correct it after the fact.'"

It's not a surprise, he added, that there's been a lackluster response to some academic recovery efforts. A lot of districts have spent relief funds on less-effective remediation efforts, such as optional on-demand tutoring. And those companies typically get paid whether or not students improve or even use the service, according to a recent CALDER paper

In response to disappointing results, some states and districts have shifted course. A few have canceled agreements with large online tutoring companies. Some have turned to "outcomes-based" contracts — in which tutors earn more money for better results. But others are sticking with virtual providers

If districts are going to spend funds on tutoring, Goldhaber said, officials should "have some control over" which students receive the help and when it's delivered.

He and Polikoff are among the experts urging educators to make test score data a much larger focus of their conversations with parents. And there's some evidence that hard facts about students' scores can be a wake-up call.

A November Gallup-Learning Heroes poll showed that among parents who knew their children were below grade level in math, improving those skills became their number one concern, more important than curbing the effects of social media and protecting them from bullies.

Being honest with parents starts at the top, said Nat Malkus, deputy director of Education Policy Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. 

"Superintendents should not say, 'We're chugging along. We're going to get there.' They should say this is a huge problem," he said at the Aspen event. Teachers, he added, need "political cover" to tell parents their children are behind. "It's the truth and we need to deliver it." 

But the news doesn't always go over well. When Precious Allen, who teaches second grade at Betty Shabazz Academy, a charter school in Chicago, showed parents test results that indicated their children were a year or more behind, she said they grew "flustered" and complained about doing extra review sheets with their children after work. 

It was tough, she said, for them to "wrap their minds around" the data. She shared passages from a book that explains where children should be for their age to help parents understand how the pandemic threw their kids off track. "I had to bring a lot of science and research into it because sometimes the voice of a teacher is not enough."

'Worst possible time'

But not all educators believe assessments provide valuable or reliable information. Polikoff sees the separation between parents and the nation's education scholars as part of a larger anti-testing movement that started brewing long before the pandemic. The pandemic pause on state assessments and accountability sparked a renewed push to limit the number of tests and try different models.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, for example, is leading a 2024 ballot initiative to remove the state test as a graduation requirement, calling it "harmful." The proposal drew sharp criticism from National Parents Association President Keri Rodrigues, whose organization trains parents to advocate for quality education.

"This is the dawn of a new era, where high school diplomas now become participation trophies," she wrote in an op-ed

Testing critics complain that assessments take up too much instructional time and that the results rarely benefit teachers because they arrive after students have already moved on to the next grade. Others say high-stakes tests are racially biased against Black and Hispanic students. 

"There's just very close to zero constituencies advocating for tests or that they matter," Polikoff said. Republicans, he said, "want only unfettered choice" while the left is not defending the usefulness of tests "to ensure educational quality or equity."

The backlash against testing, he said, has come "at the worst possible time given the damage that's actually been done."

This story was produced by The 74 and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.