Does It Hurt Children to Measure Pandemic Learning Loss?

Research shows many young children have fallen behind in reading and math. But some educators are worried about stigmatizing an entire generation.


By Dana Goldstein

Over the past year, Deprece Bonilla, a mother of five in Oakland, Calif., has gotten creative about helping her children thrive in a world largely mediated by screens.

She signed them up for online phonics tutoring and virtual martial arts lessons. If they are distracted inside the family’s duplex, she grabs snacks and goes with the children into the car, saying they cannot come out until their homework is done. She has sometimes spent three hours per day assisting with school assignments, even as she works from home for a local nonprofit organization.

It all sometimes feels like too much to bear. Still, when her fifth-grade son’s public-school teacher told her he was years behind in reading, she was in disbelief.

“That was very offensive to me,” she said. “I’m not putting in myself, my hard work, his hard work, for you to tell me that he’s at second-grade reading.”

Ms. Bonilla’s experience illustrates a roiling debate in education, about how and even whether to measure the academic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the nation’s children — and how to describe learning gaps without stigmatizing or discouraging students and families.

Studies continue to show that amid the school closures and economic and health hardships of the past year, many young children have missed out on mastering fundamental reading and math skills. The Biden administration has told most states that unlike in 2020, they should plan on testing students this year, in part to measure the “educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

But others are pushing back, especially on behalf of the Black, Hispanic and low-income children who, research shows, have fallen further behind over the past year. They fear that a focus on “learning loss” could incite a moral panic that paints an entire generation as broken, and say that relatively simple, common-sense solutions can help students get back up to speed.

“This isn’t a lost generation,” said Kayla Patrick, a policy analyst at the Education Trust, a national advocacy group focused on low-income students and students of color. “They just need extra support — in many cases, the support they probably needed before the pandemic, like tutoring.”

Others go further, arguing that regardless of what terminology is used, standardized testing to measure the impact of the pandemic is unnecessary or even actively harmful. Voices as prominent as the former New York City schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest educators’ union, have encouraged parents to opt their children out of state tests during the pandemic. “We do not want to impose additional trauma on students that have already been traumatized,” Mr. Carranza said.

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