If you are searching for more evidence that the Massachusetts board of education’s decision to raise the state’s MCAS graduation requirements was shortsighted and wrongheaded, you need only look at a study released earlier this month that weighed the impact of COVID-19 on American education.

The study from the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Education Department, revealed that test scores among 9-year-olds plummeted over the past two years, erasing 20 years of progress.

Reading scores saw their largest decrease in three decades, the study showed, and math scores dropped for the first time in the testing regimen behind the study, often referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card.”

In math, the average score for 9-year-old students fell 7 percentage points nationwide between 2020 and 2022, according to the study. The average reading score fell 5 percentage points.

“It’s clear that COVID-19 shocked American education and stunned the academic growth of this age group of students,” Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told The New York Times.

The news should not come as a surprise. Many children spent a year or more learning at home, through Zoom, then returned to rearranged, unfamiliar school surroundings. In-person schooling had its own limitations, as the ongoing pandemic kept many teachers and students out of the classroom.

“These are some of the largest declines we have observed in a single assessment cycle in 50 years of the NAEP program,” Daniel McGrath, another NCES commissioner, told The Associated Press. “Students in 2022 are performing at a level last seen two decades ago.”

Educators say it will take years to make up for lost time. And that is especially true for underserved communities that have long struggled for equal access to quality education.

“Due to inequitable and unjust school systems, students who are the most underserved continue to struggle academically both before and during the pandemic,” said Denise Forte, interim CEO of the Education Trust think tank. “Decision-makers at all levels have not done nearly enough to address the long-standing resource inequities that prohibit Black, Latino and students from low-income backgrounds from reaching their full academic potential.”

Math scores dropped by 5 percentage points for white students last year, compared with 13 points for Black students and 8 points for Hispanic students. The divide between Black and white students widened by 8 percentage points during the pandemic.

Forte called the test results “deeply disturbing.”

It is against that backdrop that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education continues to press ahead with its fetishistic commitment to high-stakes testing. Late last month, the board voted 8-3 to raise the minimum MCAS scores that the classes of 2026 to 2029 will need to meet to graduate high school. Then, the board immediately doubled down and voted to raise the requirements again after that.

It is madness.

As Deb McCarthy, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, noted last month, “We have seen an alarming increase in the social and emotional needs of our students. To consider the escalation of a testing regime during a time when our students have experienced so much loss and disconnection is not only harmful, it is purposeful negligence. Our students don’t need more testing time. They need more learning time.”

She’s right. And the study from the National Center for Education Statistics proves her point. Almost 20 years of steady improvement in testing was wiped out by two years of the pandemic. It is foolish to think that ground can be regained in two years. It will take years of work to help students catch up. That’s where the state’s education efforts should be focused.

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