Skip to main content

We're pleased to bring you "While You Were Out"—Verily's quick takes on the happenings of this week.

Children's math and reading scores plummeted during the pandemic

A new federal study reveals just how dramatically children's math and reading skills fell during the pandemic when most schools around the country were closed.

"Reading scores saw their largest decrease in 30 years, while math scores had their first decrease in the history of the testing regimen behind the study, according to the National Center for Education Statistics," AP reports.

The just-released Nation's Report Card compared tests from 14,800 9-year-olds to tests taken by the same age group in early 2020. It revealed that students saw massive setbacks in learning during school closures, and these losses hit minority students hardest.

"In math, Black students lost 13 points, compared with five points among white students, widening the gap between the two groups," the New York Times reports. "Research has documented the profound effect school closures had on low-income students and on Black and Hispanic students, in part because their schools were more likely to continue remote learning for longer periods of time."

The learning losses were also especially significant for students who were already struggling, with math scores from students in the bottom 10th percentile dropping four times lower than those in the top 90th.

These significant dips in test scores can have a compounding effect that has many experts worried for students' futures. "Student test scores, even starting in first, second and third grade, are really quite predictive of their success later in school, and their educational trajectories overall," Susanna Loeb, the director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, told the New York Times. "The biggest reason to be concerned is the lower achievement of the lower-achieving kids." —Madeline Fry Schultz

Taylor Swift announces new album, Lizzo gets political at VMAs

At the 2022 MTV Video Music Awards, Taylor Swift stole the show with three awards and a surprise announcement: Her latest album will be released next month. "I thought it might be a fun moment to tell you that my brand-new album comes out Oct. 21," she said during her acceptance speech. "I will tell you more at midnight."

That night, she announced on her social media that her new album, "Midnights," will include 13 songs about "13 sleepless nights throughout my life." (Oct. 21 happens to be the birthday of Kim Kardashian, with whom Swift has feuded in the past.)

Lizzo also made headlines for getting political. The artist won the award for Video for Good for her "About Damn Time" music video. "Your vote means everything to me, it means everything to making a change in this country," she said during her acceptance speech. "So remember when you're voting for your favorite artists — vote to change some of these laws that are oppressing us."

Other notable happenings at the VMAs: Gen Z rapper Jack Harlow won four awards; Lil Nas X and Harry Styles each won three; Nicki Minaj, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Lisa of BLACKPINK came home with two. —MFS

Amazon Prime launches first episodes of $100 million 'Lord of the Rings' prequel series

Episodes one and two of The Rings of Power, Amazon Prime's prequel series to the iconic Lord of the Rings trilogy, are now available for streaming.

The series is set in Middle Earth, thousands of years before the adventures chronicled in The Hobbit trilogy—An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies—or the trilogy proper—The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King—and follows the major events that occurred during the Second Age. With familiar characters, Elrond and Galadriel, portrayed by Robert Aramayo and Morfydd Clark, respectively, The Rings of Power chronicles the forging of the Rings of Power, the alliances between Men and Elves, the rise of Sauron, and other crucial events that set the scene for the trilogy.

Initial reviews of the series praise its visuals and aesthetic details and largely criticize the pacing. While the worldbuilding and scene setting are extensive, CNN writes, "The series format — episodes will drop weekly after the two-part premiere — also tends to invite some bad habits versus even Jackson's notoriously long movies, with plodding interludes and a second episode that unfolds on multiple fronts without feeling as if a whole lot is happening, relatively speaking."

Amazon purchased the television rights to Lord of the Rings for $250 million in 2017 and has produced the first season of The Rings of Power on a budget of $100 million. The series was developed by Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne in close collaboration with the Tolkien estate.—Maggie Sicilia

Serena Williams continues tennis legacy at U.S. Open

Serena Williams has taken the court at this year's U.S. Open and has hinted that this tournament may be her last.

Williams openly introduced her eventual departure from tennis in a Vogue feature last month, where she described the shift as an "evolution" rather than "retirement." She reflected on her desire to build her family and to do more work with Serena Ventures, her newly-established venture capital firm that focuses on funding underrepresented ideas and founders.

Williams began her tennis career in 1999 and has won 367 major matches, four Olympic gold medals, and 23 grand slam titles. She was the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women's Tennis Association's number one ranked player for 319 weeks of her career; only four other players have held this ranking for over 300 weeks: Steffi Graf, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Martina Navratilova.

In the second round on Wednesday, Williams overtook Anett Kontaveit, the second-ranked international player. Williams faced Alija Tomljanović Friday night in the third round and although she played valiantly, Williams eventually lost. She and older sister Venus lost their first-round doubles match against Czech duo Linda Nosková and Lucie Hradecká. Venus and Serena have won 14 grand slam titles as doubles partners.

The U.S. Open began on August 23 and will conclude on September 12.—MS

Last leader of Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, passed away

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the former Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991, passed away Tuesday after a long illness. Gorbachev, who was 91, is credited with restoring democracy to communist-ruled European nations.

Gorbachev stood out as a different sort of leader than his predecessors, as he strove for economic and political reforms in the Soviet system. His time as leader is associated with the phrases "glasnost" (openness) and "perestroika" (restructuring). Gorbachev won the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Cold War.

World leaders have paid tribute to Gorbachev and his legacy. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, wrote on Twitter that Gorbachev's role in ending the Cold War "opened the way for a free Europe. This legacy is one we will not forget."

"As leader of the USSR, he worked with President Reagan to reduce our two countries' nuclear arsenals, to the relief of people worldwide praying for an end to the nuclear arms race," President Joe Biden said, adding that Gorbachev's reforms led to "a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people."

However, while most in the west applaud Gorbachev, those at home in Russia view him less favorably. On Thursday, it was reported that Russian president Vladimir Putin would not attend Gorbachev's funeral and that Gorbachev would not receive an official state funeral. While Putin did pay his respects Thursday morning by leaving flowers on Gorbachev's coffin at the mourning hall of Moscow's Central Clinical hospital, the choice not to attend the funeral is seen as a significant political snub.

Gorbachev criticized Putin for rolling back democratic reforms and implementing new ones reminiscent of the Soviet era. —Gabriella Patti

Good News of the Week

A 60-year-old Nebraska man paddled 38 miles down the Missouri River – his watercraft of choice? An 846-pound pumpkin.

Duane Hansen set out in his pumpkin in an attempt to squash the Guinness World Record for "Longest Journey by Pumpkin Boat," a record currently held by a man named Rick Swenson of Grand Forks, ND. Swensen paddled for 25.5 miles in his pumpkin boat, named the SS Berta.

Hansen asked two people from the city of Bellevue, NE's mayor's office to come to the river to witness his efforts to complete the trek.

"We were very surprised when we saw the hollowed-out pumpkin and realized that he would be sitting in the pumpkin for 11 hours while floating down the Missouri River," Phil Davidson, who works in community relations for the City of Bellevue, said. Davidson served as one of Hansen's witnesses and was surprised when he realized that Hansen would not simply be floating the pumpkin down the river, but he would be riding in it.

Hansen has been growing squashes and gourds his whole life, and several years ago, he decided to gourd big or gourd home and began growing giant pumpkins. While he said it is tricky to grow the giant pumpkins, he has successfully grown three or four 500-pounders.

While Guinness World Records is still reviewing Hansen's application, Hansen is proud of what he accomplished.

"I'm glad I did it. I mean, 30 miles is a long ways to go in a pumpkin down a river, but I'm sure someday somebody will try to beat it," said Hansen. "I turned 60 the day before I did this, so I'm not no young punk, you know? If somebody beats me, I have just enough experience at this now. I would probably try to do it again." —GP

Watch of the Week

Curious to watch The Rings of Power, Amazon Prime's prequel series to the iconic Lord of the Rings trilogy – check out the trailer below!