Jan 17, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Biden administration unveils plan to halt declining student test scores

Sheila Rodriguez, Reading Manager at the University of Houston- Downtown E-Library, standing, works with parent and student, Emerita Munguia and Emerita Silieza, respectively, on creating their bilingual stories and exercises on at Black Elementary in Houston. Photo: Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

The Biden administration wants to reverse the trend of declining test scores and dropping student attendance that accelerated during the pandemic.

Driving the news: The U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday a plan for states to provide more tutoring, after-school and summer programs and funding to tackle chronic absenteeism.

  • The administration said stepped-up accountability, reporting, grants and technical assistance will help states improve student achievement amid worries test scores have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Quick catchup: Reading scores for elementary school students plunged to their lowest levels since 1990 during the first two years of the pandemic, according to national test results released in 2022.

  • Math scores dropped for the first time in the history of a nationally representative test dating back to the 1970s. The tests were administered from January to March in 2020 and 2022.
  • The pandemic disrupted virtually all aspects of the educational experience — and experts warn that the daunting task of student recovery could take years.
  • The chronic absenteeism rate reached about 31% in 2021-2022 because of COVID-19.

Zoom in: New Mexico, the state with the highest percentage of Hispanic residents, ranked dead last nationally on the results from the test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), or the Nation's Report Card.

  • Before the pandemic, the state regularly ranked 50th on several benchmarks in education despite increased state funding.

Details: The plan unveiled by the administration urges states to adopt chronic absenteeism as an indicator in their federal statewide accountability requirements.

  • The administration also vowed to seek more federal funds to help increase attendance and develop more after-school and tutoring programs.
  • Some of the funding is already available through the American Rescue Plan and other programs, the administration said.

What they're saying: "The bare minimum that we aspire to is to get back to what it was in 2019. (But) 2019 data wasn't anything to write home about," Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a virtual press conference.

  • "Let's fight complacency. We need all hands on deck."
  • New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said programs like extended learning have helped some school districts with a large percentage of Native American students improve student achievement.
  • Lujan Grisham said the challenge is convincing school districts to adopt it.

Yes, but: Challenges remain in getting school districts to expand after-school and tutoring programs like transportation and hiring qualified staff.

  • Many states have had to battle an ongoing teacher shortage thanks to retirements from Baby Boomer educators and teachers leaving the field due to low pay and stress.

What's next: State legislatures in session may have to pass measures to add chronic absenteeism to their accountability requirements.

  • Parents and teachers may fight extended learning programs or increasing school calendar days without a pay increase.

Go deeper: America's public schools are losing students

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