New research: COVID’s toll on learning comes with a $1 trillion price tag for students

"We need to maintain urgency—and we have to change the conversation from going back to what we had before the pandemic to doing better for our children," said DOE Secretary Miguel Cardona in a statement following the release of the Nation's Report Card.

Last week the National Assessment of Education Progress released nationwide federal test scores, revealing what has been the sharpest decline in math for 4th- and 8th-graders ever recorded in the Nation’s Report Card, in addition to a plummet in reading scores.

Not only is this a cause for concern as school districts continue to search for solutions to get their students caught up academically, but this drastic drop in achievement may also impact students’ futures in a way that can’t be measured on a report card.

New research suggests that the lifetime income of students will suffer a loss of nearly $1 trillion based on the results of the federal test scores, according to authors Tom Kane, a Harvard economist, and Douglas O. Staiger, an economics professor at Dartmouth.

“We interpret this evidence as saying that NAEP means something,” Staiger said in an interview with The 74, a nonprofit education-focused news organization. “When there are improvements in scores, those kids coming out of school are going to have better outcomes later in life. And we can infer from this recent decline that all the cohorts in school now are going to do a bit worse than we expected.”

The authors evaluated federal test scores to predict the negative outcomes that students will bring into their futures as a result of the pandemic. Upon analysis, they found a positive correlation between growth in 8th-grade math and high school graduation, college enrollment and income. Furthermore, girls are less likely to become teen mothers in states with more academic growth and boys are less likely to be arrested, thus indicating a significance associated with academic achievement and life outcomes.

Although math and reading scores decline in every state, Staiger said progress is still being made.

“We’re still way ahead of where we were in the 1990s even though some states have slipped back,” he told The 74. “This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be thinking about helping these cohorts, because we’ve now reset the norm. But we really should be celebrating the incredible things that schools and teachers have done over the last 30 years.”

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According to the study, the average drop in test scores correlates to a 1.6% decline in potential earnings, which adds up to $900 billion across the nation’s 48 million public school students. However, it’s important to mention that this projection assumes that the effects of student learning loss are permanent. Reversing this prediction would require drastic changes in K-12 education, according to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

“We need to maintain urgency—and we have to change the conversation from going back to what we had before the pandemic to doing better for our children,” said Cardona in a statement following the release of the Nation’s Report Card. “If we do what we’ve done, we’re going to get what we’ve gotten.”

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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