Students across the US have fallen behind in both math and reading in the past three years, illuminating the drastic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams released Monday.
The exams, often called the “Nation’s Report Card,” sampled about 450,000 fourth and eighth graders in more than 10,000 schools across the country between January and March. The last exams were administered in 2019, just before the beginning of the pandemic and a widespread transition to virtual learning.
In the past three years, math scores showed the steepest declines ever reported by NAEP since its initial trial assessment in 1990, according to Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. Eighth graders’ scores sank by eight points since 2019. Fourth graders’ scores were slightly better, but still declined in 41 states. Just 36% of fourth graders were considered proficient in math, compared to 41% in 2019.
“Eighth grade is that gateway to more advanced mathematical course taking,” Carr said, according to CNN. “This is what these students are missing. They’re missing these important skills that will prepare them eventually for (science, technology, engineering and math) level careers.”
Last month, the national assessment released results showing that math and reading scores for 9-year-olds have declined since 2020 at a level not seen in decades.
Compared to math scores, students’ reading performance was less affected, possibly because students received more help from parents during the pandemic, The New York Times reports. Still, reading scores declined in more than half the states, continuing a downward trend that had already been observed in 2019. No state showed improvement in reading, with only about 1 student in 3 meeting proficiency standards.
All students across the country were affected by the pandemic, as reflected by the report, but there was a disproportionate effect on certain marginalized groups. Eighth-grade math scores declined across most racial and ethnic groups, among low-, middle- and high-performing students. fourth graders’ math scores in 2022 declined at the lower and higher percentiles for Black and Hispanic students, students of two or more races, and white students compared to 2019, and scores declined at the lower percentile for Native and Asian students.
“What we’re seeing is (lower performing) students… dropping even faster and we’re also seeing students who were not showing declines ― students at the top, meaning students at the higher performing levels ― they were holding steady before the pandemic or even improving,” Carr said. “Now all the students, regardless of their ability, are dropping out. That is the point we need to be taking away from this report.”
The results show the ways that school closures during the pandemic affected students. But researchers indicated it doesn’t necessarily follow that states where remote learning lasted longer experienced dramatically worse results. Factors like poverty levels and individual state education policies may have also played a role.
More analysis is needed to understand the pandemic’s role in the declines, said Carr, along with examination of other factors like teacher shortages and bullying.
“If this is not a wake-up call for us to double down our efforts and improve education, even before it was ― before the pandemic, then I don’t know what will,” US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Monday, according to CNN.
The federal government invested $123 billion in American schools last year to help students catch up from learning lost during the beginning of the pandemic, according to The New York Times. School districts were required to spend at least 20% of the funds on academic recovery.
The funding is due to expire in 2024, but research suggests billions more dollars may be needed for students to truly recover.