• Commentary

National Assessment Reveals Education Disparities in Georgia

It has been heartening, in a strange way, to read all the worried coverage about the dreadful scores on the latest edition of the so-called Nation’s Report Card. Although many educrats were at pains to gloss over this evidence of learning loss, some commentators who typically echo their excuses were unwilling to parrot them this time.

If we’re to reverse these losses, acknowledging that they even happened is step one.
But what’s interesting in Georgia’s case is how clearly some important policy differences within the state were reflected in the scores.

First, some background. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called the NAEP, is a set of federally mandated tests that allow for comparisons of student achievement across all 50 states. In recent years, Atlanta Public Schools and 25 other urban school districts have participated separately to give policymakers a snapshot of how student achievement in these areas compares to a statewide average.

This is where things get interesting in the most recent assessment, taken last spring.
2022 was the first time the NAEP’s benchmark tests for fourth- and eighth-grade students in math and reading were given since 2019. That’s why the new results are getting so much attention: They are our first, best, nationwide look at how the pandemic and related school closures affected learning. (State tests, which have also been administered since the pandemic, often show an inflated level of achievement compared to the NAEP that is sometimes called the “honesty gap.”)

Statewide, the news in Georgia wasn’t as bad as some had feared. Although scores fell across all four tests (math and reading for both fourth and eighth grade), only the 8-point drop in eighth-grade math was considered statistically significant.

Now, that little factoid – which is what our state’s educational establishment chose to highlight – obscures a more basic, stubborn fact: Student achievement in Georgia remains far too low.
Only about a third of Georgia fourth-graders were considered “proficient” at either math or reading. Among eighth-graders, only a third were proficient at reading – and just 1 in 4 at math. Worse, between 25% and 40% of these students couldn’t even meet the “basic” threshold, defined as “partial mastery” of fundamental skills and knowledge.

Clearly, we have a lot more work to do. It’s just that other states regressed even more sharply.
We can likely attribute much of our fell-less-behind “achievement,” if that’s the right word, to the fact that many of our schools reopened for in-person learning sooner than their counterparts in other states. The data research firm Burbio reported that for the 2020-21 school year – the first one to begin during the pandemic – Georgia had the 13th highest average rate of in-person learning in the nation. Many Georgia schools offered in-person learning from day one.

You know where that didn’t happen? Atlanta.

Atlanta Public Schools didn’t even offer in-person classes until late January 2021 for the youngest students, and mid-February 2021 for middle and high school students. Even then, many students chose to continue learning virtually for weeks or even months longer.

Their choice was their choice. But forcing virtual learning on all students for months longer than others in Georgia appears to have had drastic consequences.

APS’ results were the opposite of those statewide: In three of the four key tests, there were statistically significant declines (all but eighth-grade reading). The fourth-grade reading score hit its lowest level, statistically speaking, since 2009.

Perhaps more worrisome, the “achievement gap” between black and white students widened at least a bit in Atlanta’s schools on all four tests – particularly so for fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading. Statewide, that didn’t happen; the gap even closed ever so slightly in some cases.

We who work in the policy world often preach that policy differences have consequences. But rarely does the post-mortem arrive this soon, or show such severe differences so quickly.

May our leaders never again make such bad decisions out of their own fear – and may they do everything possible to atone for their mistakes.