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Tell Parents the Truth About Learning Loss


By any measure, America’s students are in crisis. According to a survey released this month, nearly half of all schoolchildren started the year below grade level in at least one subject, up from 36% in 2019. The pandemic caused students to lose, on average, half a year’s learning in math, with low-income students falling further behind. Yet when it comes their own kids’ academic progress, too many parents remain in the dark about these challenges.

In a national survey last fall, fewer than one in 10 parents said they were concerned that their child would struggle to make up lost ground, with 43% saying that their kids hadn’t experienced any learning loss at all. Another found that more than 90% of parents think their children are performing at or above grade level in reading and math. In California, most parents say they their child’s academic performance has improved since the pandemic, with 22% reporting it unchanged — despite standardized test results showing broad declines across grade levels.

To an extent, parents are simply expressing faith in their own kids’ resilience. But there’s also evidence that they’re receiving a distorted academic picture from schools.

Classroom grades are the most widely used measure of student progress. But those marks are misleading: Over the past decade, aggregate high school grade point averages have steadily risen, even as ACT college-entrance exam scores have dropped. Standardized tests should provide a more objective benchmark, but even that data can convey a false impression of achievement. For instance, the percentage of students considered “proficient” in reading is 14 points higher based on tests administered by individual states than on the more rigorous National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Moreover, while federal law requires states to conduct regular assessments of all public-school students, districts are largely free to determine how much data to share with families and the manner in which to provide it. Even when parents do get access to test scores, they often are presented in confusing language, arrive too late in the year to be of much use, and fail to show whether a student is progressing over time.

This lack of transparency has corrosive effects. Inadequate information about student performance makes it harder to convince parents of the need for supplemental instruction or summer school. It also weakens political incentives for districts to invest in high-quality tutoring, an extended school year and expanded school choice. That task is all the more urgent because of next year’s deadline for using $190 billion in federal Covid relief funds, much of which remains unspent. Absent pressure from parents, Congress may be less inclined to extend the deadline — let alone allocate additional funds to sustain the programs that work.

Addressing this crisis requires that parents have access to real information, not bromides. The federal government should require that states not only conduct assessments but also make results available to schools and students’ families as quickly as possible, rather than months after the tests are taken. Scores from benchmark national assessments should be broken down to at least the district level, to allow parents to compare local schools with the rest of the country. Increasing the use of “end of course” exams to measure students’ mastery of classroom material would provide a check on grade inflation. States should encourage districts to issue report cards that combine grades with clearly worded analyses of standardized test scores that track students’ progress over time. Efforts to build digital portals that allow parents to access their students’ full testing history, as Texas has done, should be expanded.

America’s schoolchildren face a daunting task to recover what they’ve lost. The least schools can do is tell the truth about how far they have to go.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• CDC Alert on Teen Mental Health Is a Red Alert: Lisa Jarvis

• Why US Schools Are Getting More Political: David Hopkins

• Learning Loss is a National Crisis: Michael R. Bloomberg

The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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