“’Learning loss’ is a false construct.”

Those words came from the Twitter account of Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, on March 3, 2021. The NCAE is the state chapter of the national teacher’s union.

That sentiment hasn’t aged well a year later, to judge by the results of a new report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction that shows crippling learning losses for K-12 public school students compared to pre-pandemic levels of performance. 

The results — developed in partnership with SAS Institute — were presented to the N.C. State Board of Education on Wednesday, March 2.

“A week ago, when we first got a look at this material, we felt like crying. It confirms what you knew was coming, but seeing the reality is very painful,” said N.C. Board of Education member Jill Camnitz.

The report is the first “comprehensive and authoritative statewide summary of the impact of the pandemic on student learning for all North Carolina public school students,” said Dr. Michael Maher, executive director of DPI’s Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration. “Results show that there was a negative impact for all students for all grades for almost every subject … most students continued to progress during the pandemic, but at a slower pace than they would have otherwise.”

The negative effects were most significant for students from low-income families, according to the report. The worst subject areas were math and biology. On the positive side, the results showed that learning loss impacts were less severe for students with special needs and for students learning English as a second language, compared to the general population of students.

Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, said the study shows the state’s “formidable education challenge” moving forward from the pandemic.

“Despite claims by the president of the NCAE that learning loss is a ‘false construct,’ this groundbreaking report shows that every demographic group in the state encountered pandemic-era learning loss,” Stoops said.

The results are the latest piece of negative news on student performance. In September, DPI released end-of-grade test scores for the 2020-21 school year showing that fewer than half of K-12 students passed state exams.

For solutions, the report recommended a two-fold approach: Ensure that children are back in the classroom and expand broadband connectivity.

“Our biggest takeaway is that the majority of students need regular interaction and direct personal engagement with their principals, their teachers, and their peers,” said Dr. Jeni Corn, director of research and evaluation for DPI’s Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration.

Stoops suggests an additional approach — giving kids “high-dosage tutoring” as the best course forward. “State lawmakers should approve an education savings account program that allows families to access tutoring services from public, private, and nonprofit entities,” he said.