by Dr. Gladys I. Cruz
Questar III BOCES District Superintendent

New data released last month showed the largest drop in student math test scores in a half century.

The publication of scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card – shows that the average 13-year-old’s understanding of math dropped to levels last seen in the 1990s. Additionally, struggling readers scored the lowest since 1971, when the test was first administered.

Some have suggested that this should be a wake-up call for school leaders. My perspective is that this new federal data should not be surprising given the impact of the pandemic on our students and school operations over the past three years.

We can always do better in public education – and these scores show that we must do better for our students and communities. These results reinforce both the need to focus on accelerating students’ learning and addressing their academic and social-emotional needs while looking at larger systemic changes and needs to redesign our schools to address the needs of all learners in the rapidly changing technological landscape.

The pandemic was a significant disruption in our students’ lives and in public education. While we are seeing proof of the initial impact of this disruption with these test scores, it may be years until we know the full impact of the pandemic on our students’ lives, at school and at home.

You may have heard the term “Maslow before Bloom” – the idea that we need to meet students’ basic needs for safety and belonging before turning to academic tasks. I argue that we must do both at once. It is important for our schools to work closely with their regional service providers and others to coordinate efforts to ensure good mental health and social well-being of our learners and families.

We know that the past several years have disrupted learning, schedules, routines, and interests. For example, fewer students now report reading for pleasure. In fact, nearly a third of NAEP respondents said they “never or hardly ever” read for fun, compared to 22 percent who chose that response in 2012. This should be of huge concern as reading for fun is what sometimes awakens students’ interests and passions in different topics.

We are also seeing the impact of student absenteeism and social media on mental health. The U.S. Surgeon issued an advisory on social media and youth mental health in early June. The NAEP found that the percentage of students missing five or more days of school monthly has doubled since 2020. The hardships that our youth are facing will take years of recovery.

Within Questar III BOCES, we have always focused on building relationships with our students and families. Unlike traditional public schools, our teachers often get to spend multiple years with students, giving us additional time to get to know them well and to get to better understand and address their needs, stressors, and aspirations individually. Research suggests that looping or spending more than one year with students has positive academic achievement and behavior outcomes. The benefits of successful approaches such as these should be looked at carefully to assist our youth recover.

It is also critical for school districts to leverage a variety of strategies to accelerate learning, including robust summer programming, tutoring, and extra help (while extra federal funding is still available). Schools must also develop partnerships with businesses and institutions of higher education in order to better support the P-12 enterprise.

The NAEP scores also reflect socio-economic challenges and the gaps between different groups. Students in poorer districts and students of color were, on average, disproportionately impacted by the pandemic – and they had larger test score declines.

School districts have historically used data to drive local improvement – whether it is curriculum, professional development, or how and what we teach. However, test scores alone cannot answer all the why questions. They are an indicator and one we must consider as we look across our schools and systems. Ultimately, we must drill deeper with local data to identify the needs of students, in specific classrooms and grade levels, and across buildings. It is also important to look at what is happening regionally, statewide, and nationally.

Looking bigger picture, we need to address some longstanding challenges in public education, including how we fund schools, what and how we teach, and what we measure or use for graduation measures. A Blue-Ribbon Commission is currently exploring what a New York State diploma should signify. Additionally, the national School Superintendents Association (AASA) brought together a group of national leaders from schools, businesses, institutions of higher education, and entrepreneurs to develop a framework – Learning 2025 – that recommends a redesign of our system that is student centered, equity focused, and forward driven.

We need to encourage more innovation and collaboration in the public school system and use some of the flexibility provided during the pandemic to be more creative and responsive to student needs. We also need to attract more teachers and school leaders, particularly women and people of color, who are lacking in our system. Research shows that students do better in school when they see more teachers and leaders that look like them.

As the new president of AASA, I will be working with my colleagues across the country to focus on “Leading in a New Era: New Challenges, New Approaches.” This is an opportunity for school leaders and elected officials to work together to address significant challenges – both new and longstanding – with collaborative and creative approaches.

Public education remains a beacon of hope and the foundation on which our students’ dreams are built and their possibilities and promises are realized. We must do better by adapting, innovating, and finding new ways to work together. Ultimately, the success of our individual and collective efforts will depend on how well we collaborate and respond.

This column appeared in the Register Star and The Daily Mail newspapers.

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