Reading and math scores plummet amid pandemic
Historic declines confirm heavy toll of learning disruption
WE NOW HAVE the first clear look at how the pandemic has affected student learning, and it’s not a pretty picture.
Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress released on Wednesday show an enormous decline in reading and math scores for 9-year-olds in the US from 2020 to 2022. Average NAEP scores dropped 5 points in reading and 7 points in math. This is the largest decline in reading scores in 30 years and the first decline in math scores since the national assessment was started in the early 1970s.
“I was taken aback by the scope and the magnitude of the decline,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Educational Statistics, which oversees the test, often referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card.”
Lower-achieving students saw bigger declines than their higher-achieving peers, so the gaps separating them have only grown wider. In reading, 9-year-olds at the 90th percentile saw a 2 point drop in scores, while those at the 10th percentile saw a drop of 10 points. In math, the decreases for the same groups were 3 and 12 points, respectively.
The test was administered from January to March of 2020 – just before the pandemic hit and closed schools – and then again during those same months in 2022. It was taken by a representative sample of 14,800 9-year-olds nationwide and does not include state- or district-level data. That information will come in October with the release of results from a test given to a much larger population of 4th and 8th graders, which will provide state-level results as well scores from a sample of 26 urban districts across the country.
The newly released test gathered additional information aimed specifically at better understanding the impact of the pandemic, such as whether students had consistent access to a laptop or tablet while at home and a quiet place to do school work. It also asked about how regularly they were able to interact with a teacher while schools were operating remotely. Higher-performing students reported higher rates of all those variables.
“We continue to come back to the same story, which is: resources matter, the level of support students have matters, their learning environment matters,” said Tracy Novick, a member of the Worcester school committee.
Dianne Kelly, the superintendent of the Revere Public Schools, said she was not surprised by the growing divergence in scores during the pandemic between higher- and lower-performing students. “We were hearing about the learning pods that were being created in more affluent neighborhoods,” she said of the steps better-off families took to keep their kids on track.
Kelly said the Revere schools are accustomed to “scaffolding” lessons in ways to better guide immigrant students who arrive after having had some interruption in their learning. “That’s what we have to do with all kids,” she said of the approach now needed in the face of the learning loss from the pandemic.
Despite the growing gaps between students at different achievement levels, the test had some bright spots that might not have been expected. Overall reading scores held mostly steady in city and rural areas, while dipping more in suburbs and a fourth census category labeled “towns.”
Marty West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of the governing board that oversees the NAEP test, said the results underscore the particular need for attention to students who were already struggling academically. “Supporting the academic recovery of lower-performing students should be a top priority for educators and policymakers nationwide,” he said in a statement.
Asked about that on Thursday, in the wake of the national test results, West held his ground.“The [Massachusetts] board voted in favor of those changes well aware that the pandemic had been challenging for students around the nation and in Massachusetts,” West said. “Our position is that we’re not doing any favors to students by holding them to a lower standard than they need to be successful, and that the right response to the pandemic’s impact is to use the competency determination policy as a lever to get them the supports that they need.”