David Wallace-Wells gets at something important in all of the discussion about the decline (for certain grades and subjects, among certain demographics, in certain areas) in NAEP scores (boldface mine):
But when I look at the data in detail, I just don’t see the signs of catastrophe that so many others seem to. I’m inclined to see that data as, at least, a glass half full, if not quite a best-case scenario. That’s because the declines, all told, strike me as relatively small, given the context: a brutal pandemic that terrified the country and killed more than a million of its citizens, upending nearly every aspect of our lives along the way…
Could we have managed the first year of the pandemic more strategically, doing more to protect the vulnerable and prioritize essential functions like schools? Almost certainly. (Personally, I would’ve liked to have seen schools open nationwide in fall 2020, with additional focus on rapid testing and improved ventilation.) Do we know how well each mitigation measure suppressed spread and saved lives? Not as clearly as we might like if we were trying to strategize a plan for future pandemics, and we may well be less universally restrictive if given another chance. But however open these questions may seem to you today, they were first asked not in the context of endemic Covid but of mass death and illness, uncertainty and anxiety and social disarray.
…In a vacuum, the pandemic declines look like bad news, if at a relatively small scale. But none of this happened in a vacuum. I’ve mentioned the million deaths not to fearmonger about how much higher those numbers might have been without school closures — the scale of that impact is, I believe, an open question — but just to point out the enormous and widespread human impact of the disease itself. And that impact was much larger than measured simply by mortality. More than 3.5 million Americans were hospitalized, according to one estimate, and probably at least as many suffered from long Covid. In the spring of 2020, the country’s unemployment rate exploded, jumping to nearly 15 percent from about 4 percent; for a brief period in April, six million new jobless claims were filed each week. In a single quarter, U.S. GDP fell by 9 percent. Murder rates grew by 30 percent; deadly car crashes spiked, too. Overdose deaths rose 30 percent in 2020 and 15 percent in 2021. According to some research, rates of depression tripled in the United States when the pandemic first hit. Some 600,000 teachers left the profession.
This is the world in which American students — most of them learning remotely for many months, many of them for close to a year, and some for longer — fell off by a handful of points, on their reading and math exams, compared with their prepandemic peers…
As a country, we burden our schools with an almost impossible set of responsibilities — undoing racial disparities, for instance, or closing yawning income gaps. It makes sense that we’ve piled additional frustration and rage on them, wanting to believe schools could have navigated the pandemic smoothly, too. But to judge by the test scores, at least, they came remarkably close.
I would add that the pandemic has been mismanaged, not just because of ‘the fog of war’, but intentionally so. Hundreds of thousands of people died needlessly from intentionally poor individual and society-wide (that is, political) decisions. Kids can (and did) see and understand that. A society in which many of its members display a callous and immediate disregard for the health and literally the lives of their fellow citizens might not be the best learning environment for kids either.