It was no secret that the pandemic hurt student performance. But its precise effects are still being quantified.
New national test scores, released Monday, reveal that the disruption may have been even more severe than already anticipated.
Over the last two-and-a-half years, students’ math and reading scores saw a historic decline, according to the results of a Congressionally-mandated test—known as the “nation’s report card.”
The assessment, NAEP, represents a clear, quantifiable window into the impact of the pandemic’s disruption on student performance, its administrators say.
Sharp Declines in Reading and Math
There were some intriguing outliers, including the fact that reading scores in cities with a population of over 250,000 were stable. But so far, the picture being painted is pretty discouraging.
The results show plummeting scores for math and reading. In fact, average fourth and eighth grade math and reading scores fell for most states between 2019 and 2022. In math, fourth graders fell five points nationally since 2019. Eighth graders fell eight points. Reading scores declined by three points for both grades.
There were also more students considered below basic level in reading and math. For example: Eighth graders saw a large drop, in math scores especially. In 2019, 31 percent were considered below basic level. In 2022, post-pandemic, that number has climbed to 38 percent. In reading, there were 30 percent below basic (up from 27 percent pre-pandemic).
Fourth graders didn’t really fare much better. Thirty-seven percent of fourth graders were below the basic reading level in 2022, according to the results. That’s up from the 2019 results, which showed 34 percent below basic. There were 25 percent of fourth graders below the basic math level in this year’s results—a big increase from 2019’s results, when 19 percent were below that level.
‘Appalling and unacceptable’
School closures took students and teachers out of the classroom, and the switch to remote learning exposed various inequalities in education— including issues like broadband access.
This was already well known.
But while observers may have expected a drop in scores, the severity is causing a little vertigo.
The decline in the national average scores was the “largest ever in mathematics,” according to NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr, one of the people in charge of the assessment, who noted in a prepared statement that the scores reveal the importance of instruction and schools in students’ performance.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, in a briefing with reporters, called the results “appalling and unacceptable.”
The results have provoked a series of other responses.
Some issued warnings about the possible career impacts. For example: Daniel McGrath, acting NCES associate commissioner for the assessment, noted that eighth grade is a gateway to higher math and that the learning loss could “alter the trajectories” of students who might find themselves shut out of careers in math, science and tech if the trend doesn’t change.
For some, the results seem to be proof of the failure to adapt to the pandemic.
“This year’s NAEP results confirm the absence of political will in the last two years to do anything revolutionary to change the trajectory for our children’s futures,” a statement from Memphis Lift and Nashville Propel, two Tennessee-based parent advocacy groups said.
The groups argue that politicians and school officials have misplaced energy on issues like book bans.
“The results, which parents have been predicting since the start of the pandemic, send a clear message that the powers that be, from the president to local school boards, value the system and will continue to adhere to the status quo over the future of Black and brown children,” the groups said.
Not everyone appreciates the gloomy statements. For others, the lessons are more revealing about the unprecedented challenges faced by teachers.
It’s not surprising to see such large score declines, given that the education system hasn’t seen such a large-scale crisis before, says Karyn Lewis, the director for the Center for School and Progress at the academic assessment nonprofit NWEA.
“Nothing here is surprising. We need to be focused on how we respond and how we react moving forward,” Lewis says.
The results should cause the “utmost empathy” for teachers, she adds.
Teachers have faced high levels of burnout and demoralization. Meanwhile, the range of learning needs that teachers have to accommodate has grown during the pandemic.
They’re being asked to be everything to everyone in a way that teacher-prep programs did not prepare them for, Lewis says.
“Teachers’ jobs are harder, and we need to be intentional about getting them professional development to help them change their practice to cope with that increased need for differentiation,” she says.
Lewis’ NWEA colleague, Miah Daughtery, who’s also a former teacher, adds that it shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of teachers or parents.
“2019 and 2020 were unconventional years that literally threw the world into disarray,” she says.
To Daughtery, the results signal a clear need for more investment in improving early literacy and K-12 literacy instruction, as well as an increased investment in writing instruction, which she says will improve literacy scores generally.