Why You Should Stop Worrying About Kids Being “So Far Behind…”

The pandemic is preparing kids for life beyond the classroom

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

There’s a sense of excitement in the air. Nowhere is that excitement greater than in classrooms across the country. Except maybe in the many kitchens impersonating classrooms this year.

Christmas is less than a week away. Teachers and students are packing up their books or shutting down their laptops and eagerly starting their holiday break. And parents are cheering in the background.

The next time classes convene it will be in a new year — 2021. Thank goodness.

If ever there were a reason to celebrate the new year, this is it. Vaccines are rolling out across the country. And, for the first time in ten long months, we have the thrill of hope and the anticipation of a brighter tomorrow. A tomorrow that looks more like the yesterday we all know and love.

But despite the promise of better days to come there is a bleakness hanging over education. And, according to some alarmists, our country’s entire future.

“Kids are so behind…”

You don’t have to be an educator or even a parent to have come across what has now become a popular refrain in America. “Kids are so far behind…” One study has even projected a loss of lifetime earning potential due to the COVID-slide.

I too fear the pandemic will impact our children’s financial stability. Destruction of businesses and livelihoods caused by shutdowns. Loss of family savings. Parents or caregivers taken by COVID. Government stimulus packages our kids will be paying for forever. National debt that is spiraling even further out of control.

And don’t even get me started on the inequities and inequalities, plaguing the nation. The divisiviness among us. A problem that has existed for many years, but the pandemic has brought to light.

But one thing I’m not worried about affecting their future is a brief interruption in education. Despite what the research suggests.

The Research is Bleak

Various studies have documented the COVID-slide, the learning loss caused by the pandemic. Standardized tests show that students experienced setbacks in both reading and math, with deficiencies greatest in math. Some studies project that kids could be between one-half and one full year behind in math at the end of the 20–21 school year.

But, before you get too upset, remember fear-mongering grabs eyeballs. A story about how well kids adapt to challenging circumstances doesn’t get clicks. Nor does the one that says COVID-slide was not as steep as predicted.

The one that promises a dismal future does.

Assuming the results of these standardized tests are accurate (meaning they are valid and reliable), which is a big assumption, their ability to represent learning loss and future success are limited at best.

First, students did miss out on learning last year. What passed for remote instruction in the spring varied greatly from district to district. Both teachers and students were ill-equipped for the transition. Few kids learned anything new during the final quarter of the 20–21 school.

Of course there were gaps and any tests administered early in the school year reflected this. But that doesn’t mean that our students are doomed to a lifetime of failure.

Proponents of standardized tests argue the SAT and ACT accurately predict college success. Many disagree. But, even if that’s true, success in college does not equal success in life.

The Trouble with Standardized Tests

Tests are good at measuring one thing: performance. They show how well a student can answer the limited questions set forth on the test at a particular moment in time.

Tests measure a student’s level of preparedness. That’s why schools spend so much time on test-prep activities or “teaching to the test.”

Unfortunately, there are lot of things standardized tests don’t measure. Things like creativity, innovation, and critical thinking skills. They don’t show industriousness or tenacity or social skills.

And they don’t measure knowledge. They only measure a student’s ability to recite information in the preferred way.

They also don’t account for hunger, lack of sleep, illness, anxiety, or a million other factors that impact test performance.

Students who are not good test-takers, who work slowly, or who have trouble with focus all struggle on standardized tests. And I don’t know about you, but 2020 has destroyed my ability to focus on anything for longer than ten minutes.

Standardized tests don’t work as intended. They favor white, socio-economically advantaged students who speak English as a native language.

Tests have been failing in our kids for the last twenty years. Not the other way around. To expect them to provide any meaningful data in the midst of pandemic is unreasonable.

Arbitrary Benchmarks

Equally troubling is the idea that there is a particular benchmark that all kids should reach at the same time. These benchmarks do exist, in the form of common-core or state standards. But they are human constructs, not divine ordination.

Children are not born with innate developmental timer. Some learn to walk at 9 months. Other not until 18 months.

Learning continues in this fashion throughout life. At an individual rate. All learning standards are arbitrary benchmarks created by people. People who often don’t have any experience with education or children.

Even in a “normal” year there is great variation among what individual students achieve. Some kids are right on target for their grade level. Others are several grades above or below. This is a normal part of education.

Before COVID-19, 60% percent of high school students read below grade level. And in 2017 only 40% of high school students had math skills ready for college.

Current studies predict kids will be even farther behind these measurements, which is troubling to some. But given the great variation in individual students, there never was an objective standard.

Kids are human beings. They have different interests, aptitudes, intelligences. They grow and develop at different speeds. They experience individual setbacks.

The fact that benchmarks are a human construction is a good thing. Humans created them so humans can change them. We can modify them to reflect the fact that, for the first time in a century, students lived and learned through a pandemic.

Unreasonable Expectation of Normalcy

Life during a pandemic is not normal.

Public health guidelines directed us to abandon normal in every aspect of our lives. Since March all we have heard is that we must stop doing normal to help flatten the curve and take care of others.

Businesses shuttered. Schools moved online. Vacations were canceled. Families and friends remain isolated. Concerts, sporting events, cultural events, religious services all have been canceled or modified. Every fun part of life has been suspended.

This is true for our children as well. Kids are socially isolated from their friends. They are not allowed to hug grandma. They don’t have any fun activities like sports, music, or scouts. Children have been confined to their homes for months on end. To expect learning to be normal is absurd.

Assigning grades, administering tests, and requiring kids to ignore the frightening reality they are living in shows how misplaced our priorities are in this country.

Instead of focusing on dangling participles and derivatives, and fretting about lost studies, we should be prioritizing kids mental health. And hearing how far behind they are isn’t helping them cope.

Let’s Give Kids A Little Credit

The bleak outlook for children and their future also depicts a level of despair that is tiresome. Yes, it has been a hard year. But better days our ahead.

If nothing else, our children have shown they are resilient. Why must we continue to focus on the negative?

It is demeaning to our children to think that they cannot overcome one lost year. The kids who were going to master calculus are going to do it anyway. Either at home on their own, through an online class, or next year when they are back in the classroom. And the rest of the kids probably weren’t goin to learn it anyway. And they are going to be fine.

Limited Criteria

Test scores only measure one aspect of children’s development. And frankly, in the modern world, that measure is becoming less and less important. You don’t need a college degree to be successful.

Need proof? Mark Zuckerberg? Jack Dorsey? Bill Gates?

For years, we have been pushing all kids to go to college. Whether that is the right fit for them or not. One bright side of the pandemic is that many students are reexamining this path.

Success in the 21st century requires more than academic prowess. It requires technology skills, communication skills, grit, determination, ingenuity, flexibility. Skills our kids are more equipped with because of the pandemic.

Have you seen third grader sign into Zoom, navigate technology issues, and meet his classmates in a breakout room? Or a middle school student compose professional emails, advocate for herself, and create a system to organize her papers and her time?

What about a high school student who takes care of younger siblings and still manages to get their school work done? Who’s had his SAT canceled three times and still keeps showing up and trying again? Who missed out on Prom, playoffs, Homecoming, senior concernt, and more, but instead of whining about it created his own traditions? Or who organized virtual service projects to help those less fortunate?

A Different Perspective

Our kids are not “so far behind.” They are leaps and bounds ahead in the areas that matter most. Technology, communication, flexibility, responsibility, and innovation. They are more compassionate and less selfish. They have learned not to take anything for granted.

These pandemic kids are going to do great things! Heck, they are already doing them. It’s time to stop lamenting the ways they are falling short and start celebrating the many ways they are rising to meet challenges head on.

Former lawyer, forever teacher and professional writer, Lisa writes about education, parenting and personal & professional growth. www.garnetghostwriting.com

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