Op-Ed: The learning loss is believable. It was already worse than we knew

Laura Overdeck | June 15, 2021 | Opinion, Education
The pandemic shone a brighter light on long-standing gaps in student achievement
Laura Overdeck

On Friday, we saw a bleak picture emerging from initial assessment data gathered by New Jersey schools: at least one-third of students in our state are “below grade level” in language arts and math.

While these results are alarming, they aren’t surprising and should not be questioned. In truth, Friday’s data simply confirms our already dire situation from before the pandemic.

According to one literacy report, 54% of American adults read only at the sixth grade level or less. Only 46%, or less than half, have even mastered middle school reading. On the math front, the PIAAC (Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) — a measure of adult literacy and numeracy — found that 61% of Americans lack the math skills needed to “live a mature and independent life.” This includes performing two-step calculations using whole numbers, and understanding a basic data table like those in the news.

To put it bluntly, more than half of adults nationwide are functioning cognitively like 10-year-old kids. These adults buy houses and cars, hold down jobs and care for dependents with this pitiful level of skills. New Jersey’s statistics are no better: Only 47% of our adults read at middle school level or above, and in Essex, Hudson and Passaic counties, the percentage sinks into the thirties.

How did we get here? By shunning accountability for our youngest citizens’ learning and success — particularly for students of color, who are disproportionately represented in that 54% and 61%. We have ignored the big picture, and in doing so have allowed ourselves to become complacent.

For instance, fierce battles have been waged to reduce New Jersey graduation requirements. That’s the very step that sends unprepared youth into the world without the skills they need. As a math tutor at the embattled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, I have seen the fallout firsthand: The women seeking to earn their associate degree hold high school diplomas, and yet I am often tutoring them on seventh grade math. They are nowhere near high school proficiency — nor employability, especially with a criminal record as a second strike against them.

Gap between grades and proficiency

This stems from another long-running problem in our assembly-line-style schools: the enormous gap between grades and actual proficiency. In wealthy schools, 87% of students receiving A’s score proficient on standardized state tests, while in high-poverty schools, only 35% of A students score proficient. The A’s given out in the latter schools often don’t reflect students’ true mastery of the content. These underserved students and their parents are not even informed or aware that they are not learning as much as their peers in other schools.

One can see how compassionate educators struggle over the achievement gaps. Shortfalls in performance raise painful questions about promoting students versus holding them back, since most schools still do not enable true personalized learning. But too often we completely ignore students’ dire academic needs. Year after year, we push kids into the next grade with their classmates, and into increasingly challenging material for which they are ill-prepared. This destroys their self-esteem and has generated a nation of underskilled adults.

The pandemic should have lit a fire under everyone to rethink all of this, and to revolutionize the entire system. It shone a brighter light on the distressing long-standing gaps in students’ achievement levels, borne of decades of structural racial inequities and generational reinforcement. These gaps were already there, and now they are worse. This is the moment to seize the problem and fix it. It is understandable that the reality is hard to face — but the answer is to improve how we serve all learners, not stick our heads in the sand.

So far, we’re continuing to do the latter.

For instance, in March, NJ Spotlight News reported that Central High School in Newark forbade its teachers from giving a failing grade to any student in any class. No matter how little a student attended class or submitted work, the teacher was required to give a passing grade. That cannot possibly help anyone. False passing grades mask the students’ need for more focused attention and allow them to slide through the cracks.

State testing concerns  

We see similar forces at work over testing. The last few months, New Jersey fought against assessing students statewide this spring, despite the strong guidance from President Biden’s new U.S. secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, to forge ahead. We need to know how far students have fallen behind, so we know what key skills to target as we work to catch them up. In particular, we need to focus on students of color in underserved communities, who have had the least Wi-Fi access, the least in-person schooling and the least at-home educational opportunity.

Again, it is understandable that the findings from these explorations are painful. But they need to be done. Refusing to diagnose these students’ plight reinforces structural racism, period. These are the very students who need help the most.

This is where state Sen. Teresa Ruiz is absolutely correct to voice concern about our system’s ills and to push for change. Some independent initiatives have been set into motion, such as a new statewide tutoring initiative funded by the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund and my own family’s Overdeck Foundation. But we need holistic long-term change to take root within the schools themselves. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets managed, so it is time to face the realities head-on.

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