Missouri state test scores were bound to be lower this year after 18 months of disrupted schooling for most students.
State test scores released earlier this month showed that students' scores dropped across the board: Only 45% of students met or exceeded standards in English, along with 37% in science and 35% in math.
When the majority of students in a state fail to demonstrate proficiency in English, math and science, that's bad news. It's even worse when the results are broken down by demographics. Students in high-poverty schools, those lacking internet access and those who stayed in virtual or distance learning performed significantly worse than their peers.
None of this is surprising in any way. The pandemic shined a harsh spotlight on the broken parts of our education system.
But there's a silver lining: a rare opportunity to address problems often considered too entrenched and too big to fix. The federal government is distributing a historic amount of aid to the nation's schools -- about $190 billion, which is more than four times the amount that the U.S. Department of Education spends on K-12 schools in a typical year, according to the Associated Press.
This is a critical moment for chronically underfunded districts that have been unable to move the needle on student achievement. Test scores like Missouri's offer a blueprint for where to channel the majority of those funds: The students who are the farthest behind, with the fewest resources, need the most help.
What should that help look like?
Invest in as much direct, quality instruction for students as possible for the next three years. Train teachers on instructional strategies tailored to the needs of their students, extend the school day with extra pay for teachers, hire tutors for one-on-one instruction outside school hours, lower class sizes, bring in specialists in math and reading, employ more aides and increase mental health services for students and staff.
There may be a temptation to channel much of the federal money to repairs and improvements in school buildings. While those fixes are needed in many cases, school officials ought to resist that impulse. Decades of educational research -- and common sense -- show that what happens inside a classroom is the single most important factor in improving student achievement. Parents with resources know this; that's why they hired private teachers for their kids' distance learning pods, or insisted that their kids' private schools return to classroom instruction far sooner than public schools did.
Improve the quality of teaching, and give teachers more time to teach, and students will regain the ground they've lost far more quickly.
The urgency of this moment cannot be overstated. The way schools respond to the educational setbacks of the pandemic will determine the life trajectory for millions of students.
Accountability needs to happen on more than just the local level -- each state must also be transparent and accountable. In 2019, for example, Missouri refused to release the annual performance report numbers for school districts, which includes metrics like attendance and graduation rates. But parents deserve to have that information, which is critical to understanding the challenges a school faces.
Whenever test scores are released locally, parents must take the opportunity to ask questions about how the data will be used to help their children improve in the core subjects. If a student is earning good grades in school, but their standardized test scores fail to show mastery, find out why that gap exists.
For years, educators have preached the importance of a "growth mindset" to help students build resilience and overcome setbacks and challenges.
Now is the perfect opportunity to model it.