Even at the pandemic’s height, when community health was paramount and hard decisions had to be made daily, we all knew Washington’s students were going to struggle. There was every reason to believe, and early evidence to affirm, that pandemic disruptions would slow students’ academic and social-emotional development. Post-pandemic data now confirm that to be true.
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education released updated scores for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a set of reading and math assessments taken routinely by a representative sample of 4th and 8th graders across the country since 2003. The assessments were postponed in 2021 due to the pandemic. When students resumed taking them in 2022, the results were sobering.
Academic proficiency declined across the nation in both reading and math. Our state’s 4th and 8th grade scores were the lowest they’d been since Washington students began taking the assessments nearly 20 years ago. Eighth-grade math scores declined from 40% proficient in 2019 to 28% in 2022 — a signal that nearly seven in 10 Washington students did not have the math skills they needed heading into their first year of high school last fall.
NAEP scores reinforced state-level data. All Washington public school students in grades 3-8 and high school take annual state assessments in English language arts and math, and those scores also declined dramatically from 2019 to 2022.
Additionally, enrollment at Washington’s colleges and universities has fallen for three years straight. According to data shared by the state’s public postsecondary institutions, fall 2022 enrollment of resident undergraduate students at Washington’s public four-year colleges and universities is down by nearly 10,000 students (or 11.3%) compared to pre-pandemic figures (fall 2019). Add to that, preliminary data suggest enrollment at the state’s 34 community and technical colleges could be down by 60,000 students or more over the same period (a total decline estimated to range from 26% to 33%).
Postsecondary enrollment declines contrast with increasing economic demands for skilled talent. From November 2021 to November 2022, employers added more than 130,000 jobs in Washington state, representing a 3.8% year-over-year increase. That follows a decade of economic growth marked by an increased need for prospective employees to earn a postsecondary credential — such as a degree, apprenticeship, or certificate — in order to succeed in these jobs.
The federal government anticipated the pandemic’s disruptive impact on student learning and in 2020 and 2021 provided states and school districts with billions of dollars in multiple rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. At a minimum, 20% of the third round of ESSER funds must be used to support learning recovery. The rest of the money is highly flexible for districts to manage pandemic disruptions. At the end of 2022, Washington school districts still had more than $1 billion left to spend. All of that money can and should be used to support students who need it most.
Money should be spent on evidence-based practices that are working across the country. Research indicates that intensive tutoring, high-school credit recovery, and before/after school and summer programs have shown success in accelerating learning recovery. Additionally, school districts should provide families with clear, actionable information about students’ strengths and challenges, paired with support. School districts also should clearly communicate how federal dollars are spent.
The state Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee — which includes Democrats and Republicans from both legislative chambers — recently called on the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to establish a process to monitor how school districts are implementing their academic and student well-being recovery plans following pandemic disruptions. This is a requirement of legislation passed in 2021. Such a process, along with more thorough and clear public reporting about how ESSER funds are used, would help instill public confidence in Washington’s commitment to learning recovery.
Lower achievement and declining postsecondary enrollment cannot be the new post-pandemic normal. Our students need and deserve support, and parents and caregivers are clamoring for information about what help is available. There is no time or dollar to waste.