President James Garfield once said of a favorite teacher: The ideal education was Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. Those of us who've had a favorite teacher (or two or three) will understand. And aren't the least surprised by the standardized test scores released by the state the other day.
Of course, of course, of course the ACT Aspire exam scores would have fallen across Arkansas. The schools were closed last year. And this past spring, many kids and their parents chose virtual education rather than attend school in person. No kid is going to learn sitting on a log, or in a desk, if his own Mark Hopkins isn't there.
Cynthia Howell's front-page story told the expected tale: Exam scores "fell in all grades and subjects" in the spring of 2021 as compared with the scores from 2019, the last year these tests were given. In March 2020, most schools were shut down and most everybody went virtual. Even the 2020 ACT Aspire tests were canceled. Nothing was happening, least of all robust education.
Virtual learning has its place, especially for some exceptional students. And during weather emergencies. But for many students, the science lab doesn't make sense if it's not in-person. Distractions at home might be too tempting during math class. And that's for kids who get the Internet at home; not every home has Wi-Fi.
Despite all this, Johnny Key, the state's education secretary, said 97 percent of eligible students took the Aspire tests this spring. Few states tested that many of its kids this time around. But the tests, even with low scores, are important. As Secretary Key put it: "We now have reliable, accurate data, along with other measures, to help us identify where the biggest impacts occurred."
And the impacts that occurred were no small things. Math fell 8 to 15 percentage points, depending on grade level. Literacy scores dropped 5 to 10 percentage points, especially in the earlier grades, which is worrisome. The numbers show that third-grade literacy levels fell from nearly 41 percent in 2019 to just above 30 percent in 2021. It wasn't much better in fourth and fifth grades. Any teacher (or parent) will tell you, a student can't do well in any subject if he can't read. Even math class has word problems.
Ouida Newton, chair of the state Board of Education, said the results give the state a good starting point. Maybe more like a good starting-over point.
None of this is pleasant. It's not acceptable. It's not sustainable. But neither is it anybody's fault. The covid-19 pandemic has caused havoc for everybody. Including students in Arkansas.
It's time to get back to the hard work of education. Strength.