As educators, community members and parents work to help kids catch up from pandemic-related learning loss through accelerated learning and high dosage tutoring , national test scores published Monday prove a loss already felt in America’s schools.
Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show dramatic and sobering declines in math and reading scores for the nation’s fourth and eighth graders, laying bare the ways pandemic-related disruptions damaged American students’ ability to learn.
Although federal officials who administer tests also known as The Nation’s Report Card typically caution against directly tying anything to students’ performance on tests, this time around, National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner Peggy Carr didn’t hesitate to attribute historic, “troubling” declines to student achievement during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Math scores for grades four and eight on the nationally representative tests showed the largest declines since NAEP testing began in 1990. Reading scores declined in both grades, too, since the onset of the pandemic.
In 2022, average reading scores in fourth and eighth grades decreased by three points from 2019, and average math scores in fourth and eighth grades decreased by five and eight points respectively, the test results show. The test, which involved 446,700 students at 10,970 schools, across all states at the beginning of the calendar year, is scored on a scale of 0 to 500.
The 2022 results also show students the lowest-performing students performed even worse. And of particular concern, more students scored at what are considered “below basic” levels.
There are glimmers of hope: Some states held steady in reading, and a few improved slightly. Fourth grade reading scores increased by two points in Alabama and Louisiana and eighth grade scores increased by two points in Department of Defense schools. The most dismal declines occurred in math, and no state or jurisdiction was left untouched. Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, New Mexico and others saw double-digit score declines in either fourth or eighth grade reading, or both.
The pandemic wasn’t easy on kids, their families, teachers or school leaders. The in-person rhythm of nearly every school in the country was upended, with students shifting, sometimes clumsily, to learning on devices, if they had them, at home in March 2020 and beyond. As the rest of the school year went and the next one came, school closures persisted. Remote learning looked different nearly everywhere, Carr said.
For all the agitation over reopening schools, Carr said students’ scores don’t directly reflect how long schools were closed to in-person classes during the pandemic. When schools did reopen, many students and teachers missed classes anyway in part because of COVID outbreaks.
It all added up to nationwide setbacks in learning and potential academic declines across the U.S. that may persist for years to come.
“What we need to do as researchers, as educators, as analysts is now take a second deeper dive to understand exactly what role it did play, along with all the other factors that were influencing students’ lives like mental health and like disruptions in behaviors,” Carr said, “to help students’ chances of recovery.”
Across the board, in all states, concerns remain for the most disadvantaged students – including kids with disabilities and English-language learners. The percentage of those kids, among others, who performed at or above the NAEP level considered proficient was smaller compared with 2019, the report shows.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said there must be a nationwide effort to recover and move students forward. And he’s calling on school leaders to leverage the funding and resources the Biden administration made available through the American Rescue Plan to address student learning loss.
“Let me be very clear: These results are not acceptable,” Cardona said. “We need to continue to approach the task of catching all of our students up with the urgency that this issue warrants. We must redouble our efforts to accelerate student recovery.”
How did fourth graders do?
Fourth grade reading scores declined in 30 states and jurisdictions, while fourth-grade math performance declined everywhere. The national average declined by five points in math and three points in reading since the onset of the pandemic.
Some states fared better than others. For fourth grade math, Delaware (-14), the District of Columbia (-12) and Virginia (-11) had the highest scores declines followed by Maryland, New Mexico and New York (-10 for each.) On the flip side, Alabama and Illinois’ scores remained stagnant, and Iowa, Wisconsin and fourth grade math scores at Department of Defense schools dropped by one point, the data shows.
Drops in fourth grade reading scores weren’t as dramatic as math overall, but took a major hit in some places. Virginia (-10), Delaware (-9) had the largest score declines followed by the District of Colombia, Idaho, Maine, Oklahoma and West Virginia (-8 each.) At the opposite end of the spectrum, Alabama and Louisiana improved in overall average sores by two points, Hawaii improved in overall average scores by one point, and Arizona, Florida, Illinois, South Carolina and Department of Defense school scores remained stagnant.
On average, fourth grade reading scores were the lowest since 2005, the results show. One quarter of fourth graders, on average, performed below “basic” in reading, a national increase of 3 percentage points from 2019, the data shows. The NAEP “basic” scoring category is described as “partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at a given grade,” but does not have or define an achievement level description for below “basic.”
How were eighth grade scores?
Eighth-grade reading scores declined in 33 states and jurisdictions, and eighth-grade math performance declined nearly everywhere. More than a third of eighth grade kids performed below basic on the math assessment, a national increase of 7 percentage points from 2019, the data shows. The national average test scores declined by eight points in math and three points in reading since the onset of the pandemic.
“The eighth grade mathematics results are particularly concerning as that this is the place where a pivotal moment is taking place for students in their academic careers,” Carr said.
Oklahoma (-13) Delaware and West Virginia (-12), Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania (-11 in each) saw the worst eighth grade math score declines. Scores for Department of Defense schools dropped by just one point in comparison, and Utah (-3), Alabama, Alaska and Idaho (-4 in each) saw the smallest test score declines.
Students typically can opt to take algebra or geometry courses in middle school to level up in math in high school, but now they’re recovering from the lack of more basic skills. In turn, students are losing out on lessons that will prepare them eventually for careers in math, science and technology.
“We need to be concerned about getting the students back on track so that they can be prepared for global competition in these areas, and national competition in these areas,” Carr said.
And for eighth grade reading, Maine (-8), Delaware, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon (-7 in each) and Connecticut, Missouri, North Carolina and West Virginia (-6 in each) felt the largest score declines. Department of Defense schools (+2), Hawaii and Nevada (+1 in each) improved reading scores slightly, and Alaska, California, District of Columbia and New York held steady with identical average scores to 2019.
NAEP scores are here. What’s next?
Federal, local and school leaders agree the results show will take extraordinary measures and a bounty of resources to meet the needs of America’s school kids. And while some argue it’s coming too late, there’s no better time than now to solve and invest in every place experiencing declines in learning, Cardona said on Friday.
“In this moment, we must prioritize intentional collaboration and innovation. We can’t be satisfied with business as usual,” Cardona said. “We must do better, and we can.”
In an email to USA TODAY, the Education Department said it plans to hold sessions on reading and math with educators and education leaders to “reinforce the President’s call to use ARP funds to combat learning loss” starting Wednesday and issue what it calls a learning acceleration guide to districts and states “re-enforcing the key strategies districts and states should use to address learning loss and academic recovery, with additional resources over the coming weeks.”
Education advocates who were long awaiting the results demanded the federal government make further investments in student learning and school leaders to invest resources that could help make up for the declines.
They said the nation’s leaders should look at continued federal and state targeted investments that are “crucial for students.” They mentioned supporting student well-being and using learning practices to help students catch up at this critical time. And they suggested looking at data that shows what works, including intensive tutoring, family engagement, equitable schools and healthy relationships with teachers.
“Now is the time to activate these resources and supports,” said Denise Forte, interim CEO of Education Trust.
Academic recovery can’t solely be focused on what was considered “normal” in academic achievement before the onset of the pandemic, Carr said, noting that inequities persisted for the most disadvantaged students before it, too, and “laid bare an ‘opportunity gap’ that has long existed.”
“It also showed how every student was vulnerable to the pandemic’s disruptions,” she said. “We do not have a moment to waste.”