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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Nation’s Report Card spells out urgency for local, state leaders to address learning losses

Aaron Gross tutored a student at the non-profit 826 Boston during their after school program.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Reacting to the worst results on a key assessment of math and reading skills in a decade or more, Massachusetts education leaders vowed on Monday to make up for learning lost during the pandemic and close longstanding achievement gaps for high-needs students.

But education advocates questioned whether local and state leaders were moving fast enough to address students’ learning losses and spend the billions in federal relief funds intended to combat the issue.

The lack of urgency may reflect a lack of public pressure, said Martin West, academic dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of the governing board that sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

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“To be honest, I haven’t seen the degree of urgency that I would have expected,” West said. “If you look at parent polling data, there is not widespread awareness of the reality of learning loss.”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” is a math and reading test often considered the gold standard of student assessments. It has been administered nationwide to a representative sample of 4th- and 8th-grade students since the 1990s.

On the 2022 NAEP, Massachusetts scores hit their lowest point since 2003 or earlier in all four tests, while Boston scores fell to their lowest point since 2011 or earlier in all four tests. The state also lost its top spot in two of the four tests, although averaged together, it remains first.

Education experts have said that although the sorts of measures being touted in Massachusetts — like intensive tutoring, summer programs, and a focus on early literacy — are the right ones, they have not been rolled out at the scale needed. More radical interventions, like extending school days or school years, are unlikely without strong public pressure.

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Districts need to put their pandemic funds to work on effective interventions now, said Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab.

“We should be seeing the dollars really begin to unleash the services that are starting to work,” she said. ”If not, given the rate at which we’re spending money — because we have to, because there’s only two years left — we really need to be making sure it’s working, and if not, pivoting more quickly.”

Districts across the state had plans to draw heavily from the money over the summer and going into this school year, but the state has not updated its spending tracker since July. At that point, less than a third of the state’s $2.5 billion windfall from three COVID relief bills, including the American Rescue Plan Act, had been spent. All the funds must be under contract or spent by fall of 2024, and critics have said educators have lost precious time in putting critical interventions in place.

As of September, Boston Public Schools spent about $15.7 million of its relief funds directly on instruction, with another $67.1 million planned, the district said.

Another $23 million has been spent out of the $150 million set aside for the district’s schools, much of which also is being devoted to instruction, but campus leaders have the discretion on how to spend that pot of money. In total, the district was awarded $431 million; money is also going to facilities, increasing mental health providers, and college and career counseling.

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Under the 2021 law providing most of the funds, 20 percent must address learning loss.

State and Boston leaders on Monday acknowledged that more needs to be done to make up for all the lost classroom time due to pandemic-associated school closures.

“The report shows that school districts across the state and country have to redouble our efforts to support students and raise achievement in reading and math,” said Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston in a statement. “In Boston, we are focused on meeting the needs of our students holistically, making up for lost learning time, supporting family needs and social-emotional resources, and preparing our students for college and careers.”

Following the NAEP report, Mary Skipper, the Boston schools superintendent, outlined her broad strategy for instruction, including updated curriculums and a plan for students with special needs, but did not refer to strategies for increasing classroom time.

The slow start also probably reflects the challenges that districts faced in 2021 just reopening schools at all, as well as how difficult it is to widely carry out many of the interventions.

“It’s not that this is just some easy, obvious thing that schools, for some inexplicable reason, aren’t doing,” said Matthew Kraft, an education and economics professor at Brown University. “It’s just scaling takes time.”

State and local leaders assert recovery is a core focus for the current year — or even the coming five, if their predictions pan out.

“We’re proud of the efforts of our students, families, and educators,” said Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley in a statement. “At the same time, it’s clear our students have lost ground, and we have more work ahead to recover.”

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Riley plans to address the test scores further at a state education board meeting Tuesday. According to the agenda, accelerating learning is his chief priority for the current school year. State efforts over the coming year to aid learning recovery include millions in federal and state funds for tutoring and other after-school, summer, and vacation break instruction. The state also plans to offer millions to districts for new instructional materials and professional learning.

State lawmakers are also working to provide additional guidance on effectively spending state and federal funds, according to Representative Alice Peisch, who chairs the Legislature’s joint committee on education and also sits on the National Assessment Governing Board. But lawmakers do not plan to require particular interventions, Peisch said.

“If we reach a point where we don’t see sufficient uptake, maybe that’s the time to have a conversation relative to what we do to ensure broad use of these types of interventions,” Peisch said. “But I think it’s premature at this point.”


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.