New NAEP documents Covid-19’s staggering impact on K-12 students, but begs a question: How much worse was damage in rural areas?


One of the stories I was working on late last year, when my wife’s illness forced me to take a hiatus from TIGC, was a deeper dive into the state’s K-12 performance. Up until then, my evaluation of education at a county level had focused on educational attainment levels; I was studying local populations after they had left the K-12 system and using that data as a guide to the overall readiness and capability of local labor forces.

But for a number of reasons, I had decided last year that I needed to spend some time in the K-12 end of the education pool, and I started sticking my toes into data produced by the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) and the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA). It’s been on a shelf for the past six months, but over the last couple of days, I began dusting it off and sifting through those numbers again.

And then this morning came the news that NCES was out with a new National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which found that national test scores in math and reading for 13-year-olds had been hammered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nationally, math scores had been bombed back to 1990 levels while reading scores were only pushed back two decades, to 2004 levels.

Georgia overall didn’t fare quite as badly as the nation as a whole; we lost about two decades of ground in math scores and about a dozen years in reading. However, missing from the news coverage and the report itself (at least by my reading) was any distinction between urban and rural performance. I’d be willing to wager that’ll turn out to be important.

One finding/observation I came to several years back was that the Great Recession has taken — is taking — a heavier long-term toll on rural Georgia than on urban communities, especially Metro Atlanta. TIGC’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region (which I now refer to as “Atlanna”) took a harder economic hit in the 2008-09 timeframe but recovered within a few years and pretty much got back on a strong growth track.

The other 147 counties — “Notlanna” — didn’t get hit until a little later and suffered a softer initial hit than Atlanna. But it was slower to get back to pre-Great Recession levels, and, last I looked, its growth levels were pretty lethargic. I came to regard what I was seeing in the data as “aftershocks” from the Great Recession. I found evidence of such aftershocks not just in economic performance, but in educational attainment and other areas as well.

The Great Recession coincided, for instance, with the explosion in the number of Georgia counties that were recording more deaths than births each year; as of last year, 123 of Georgia’s 159 counties were conducting more burials than baptisms. It also coincided with a sharp drop in University System of Georgia college enrollment by high school graduates from Notlanna, and that has already contributed to the widening educational attainment divide between Atlanna and Notlanna.

Then came Covid-19. I posited in early 2020 that the virus could stir a perfect storm for rural Georgia. Across the board, rural Georgia’s population was older and sicker and had far less access to health care than urban Georgians (including, in this case, Atlannans and residents of most significant urban areas). Added to that, rural Georgians (like rural Americans just about everywhere) were slower to acknowledge the seriousness of the virus, a skepticism widely rooted in politics and religion.

It wasn’t long before I began to see parallels between the Great Recession and Covid-19, including apparent aftershocks. Like the Great Recession, Covid-19 struck first and hardest in Atlanna (and other urban areas). But it wasn’t long before it spread to every corner of Notlanna and, indeed, began to take a heavier toll, with case and death rates surpassing Atlanna’s. I need to freshen up that data, but I’ve done several pieces (including this one) tracking Covid-19’s spread and mounting toll on rural Georgia.

We’re only three years into the Covid era and it may be just a tad early to begin talking about the disparate impact of Covid aftershocks on Atlanna versus Notlanna.

But I’m willing to go out on a limb and suggest that K-12 performance is an area where we’ll eventually find that already significant differences have been further aggravated by the virus — and those differences will hold long-term consequences for the entire state.

Watch this space.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2023


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