Learning loss from COVID remains

October 11, 2022

Jonathan Small

During the COVID surges starting in 2020, advocates of school shutdown insisted any associated learning loss would be short-lived and easily recovered.

That was a false promise—as state testing now shows beyond a doubt.

This year’s state testing was the second annual round since COVID hit in spring 2020. The 2022 results, recently released, show students remain well below the pre-pandemic norm. And that’s not because the pre-pandemic numbers in Oklahoma were stellar.

Each year, the state administers tests in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics in the third through eighth grades as well as grade 11, and administers tests in science in grades five, eight and 11.

In nearly every test in every grade, results were lower in 2022 than in the last round of tests administered prior to COVID in 2019. (No testing was conducted in 2020 because of COVID, but tests resumed in 2021 and 2022.)

The share of students testing proficient or better exceeded the pre-pandemic level in only two areas: 11th grade English Language Arts and 11th grade science, and students have almost recovered to the pre-pandemic norm in fifth-grade science.

A large majority of Oklahoma students in all grades and subjects scored below the proficiency level.

But on the remaining 14 state tests, student results remain well below the pre-pandemic level—sometimes far below. For example, 38 percent of third-grade students were proficient or better on English Language Arts tests in 2019. But in 2022, just 29 percent achieved that level. Worse yet, students who are behind in elementary school typically fall further behind as they progress through grades.

Overall, a large majority of students in all grades and subjects tested scored below the proficiency level. Between 62 percent and 84 percent of students on all tests scored at the “basic” or “below basic” levels, which the Oklahoma State Department of Education reported means those students “may not be” or are definitely not “on track for college or career success.”

In the face of such results, status-quo defenders often insist all is well, they just need more funding. But Oklahoma schools are operating with historic levels of funding, including billions of dollars—yes, literally billions—in federal bailout funding provided since 2020 to address COVID-related problems.

The implied promise is always that more spending will produce better academic outcomes, but in practice we’re seeing the opposite trend.

Even so, Oklahoma is fortunate things are not worse. Most schools in Oklahoma stayed open throughout the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years, albeit with occasional temporary closures due to staff challenges.

In other states, schools were forced to close for months on end.

Oklahomans owe thanks to leaders like Gov. Kevin Stitt, who fought to keep schools open.

But Oklahomans also deserve a system that puts parents in charge with greater school choice. Otherwise, the high-cost, poor-outcome results seen this year may not be an anomaly.