Peggy J. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which manages the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, said the findings, released Monday, provide “the clearest picture yet” of the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on learning, sometimes called the “nation’s report card.” . She described the declines in math, in particular, as stark and troubling, and said she hoped teachers would use the data to chart a path toward recovery.
The percentage of eighth graders who were rated proficient or better in math dropped to 27 percent, from 34 percent in 2019. Average math scores For eighth grade it fell by eight points, from 282 in 2019 to 274 this year, on a scale of 500, and for fourth grade, by five — the largest drop recorded in more than half a century of testing.
The data shows just how steeply upside American teachers are as they embark on what will likely be a years-long effort to help students make up for lost learning as schools have struggled to function during the pandemic.
“This is a very clear indication of the real impact learning has had on our children over the past two years,” said Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where grades have fallen sharply.
Average test scores for fourth graders in Cleveland dropped 15 points in math and 16 points in reading. For eighth graders, the two points were eight points in math and seven points in reading.
Gordon said Cleveland’s poor results are partly explained by the fact that tests were conducted there shortly after the area contracted the increased Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
He said Cleveland schools are mitigating losses through more time with students: extended hours, help with after-school homework, tutoring, and an intense summer enrichment program. “We have to find time to add time again to learn,” he said. “Time is what affected us, time is what it will take to get us back.”
The declines recorded were particularly worrying given that US academic performance was already shaky. In early 2020, before the pandemic overturned schools, NAEP test scores in both reading and math for 13-year-olds fell, the first drop recorded since testing began in 1969.
“The epidemic has simply made matters worse,” Education Minister Miguel Cardona told reporters on Friday.
He called the new report an “urgent call to action” for schools to work on recovery. Congress has allocated about $190 billion in coronavirus relief funding for schools, part of which should be used to address learning losses.
“We must approach the task of catching up with our children with the urgency that this moment requires,” Cardona said. “If this has not motivated you to raise the standard of education, you are in the wrong profession.”
Last year, when the students returned to the buildings, was far from the usual year. Teachers have been quick to manage the coronavirus spike, quarantines, hiding mandates, and staff shortages. They experienced more student violence, increased truancy, and severe mental health needs. Teacher morale plummeted, and schools saw large teacher and staff vacancies.
Public education is facing a crisis of epic proportions
Proponents from all sides of the educational debate have exploited the findings to reinforce competing ideas about the way forward.
Some argued that more federal and state funding would be needed to help children catch up while others said the worrying data showed counties need to spend the money they already have more quickly. Several of them called for an all-out response to support teachers as they work to climb again.
“There could not be a more urgent time to forge strong partnerships between family and school,” said National Parent Teacher Association President Anna King.
Advocates of school choice policies that send tax dollars to support private schools have used the data to argue that the current system has failed. Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement that children should no longer be “hostages” in a “one-size-fits-all system that does not meet their needs.”
The test results have also provided fodder for those who argue that getting students back on campus quickly was the right move, even with the pandemic, and that many children have stayed home or chose to learn from home for too long.
“We kept schools open in 2020, and today’s NAEP results once again proved that we made the right decision,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right) He said on Twitter.
But the data did not prove a link between back-to-school policies and academic performance. In California, for example, many public schools closed well in the 2020-21 school year, and some students didn’t see a class that year. But the declines were similar to those in Texas and Florida, where schools have been ordered to reopen much sooner.
Linda Darling Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education, attributed the state’s spending on summer school, tutoring and other initiatives while keeping losses similar to those seen in other states. However, the country experienced a significant decline, although not worse than many other countries.
“We have invested billions of dollars, literally, in learning to recover,” she said. She said she hopes the report will signal to leaders that more of the same is needed. “What would be tragic is if people come to terms with this as the pandemic ends, and they don’t have to worry about investing in children’s learning and mental health anymore.”
A survey conducted along with the tests found that students with higher test scores had greater access to support while they were in distance learning.
Top-performing eighth graders were more likely than those below to have a desktop computer, laptop, or tablet at all times; to have a quiet place to work at least some of the time; to have a teacher available every week to help; and participate in real-time online lessons with their teacher every day or nearly every day.
The decline in math had the effect of erasing years of slow, gradual progress, and among fourth-graders, the declines were particularly sharp for students at lower academic levels.
In 2019, 19 percent of fourth-grade students’ scores were considered “below baseline NAEP,” the bottom bucket, a number that has fallen dramatically over many years. This year, that rose to 25 percent of the total. Likewise, the bottom 10 percent of fourth-graders lost an average of seven points. The top 10 percent fell by two points.
In eighth grade, every state in the country saw a decline in average math scores, and all but Utah had a statistically significant decrease compared to 2019. The declines spread across racial and ethnic groups and among top achievers alike.
Reading scores also declined, dropping by three points among fourth- and eighth-grade students. However, the decline wasn’t as steep as the dips in math, and there were more bright spots.
More than half of the states, plus the District of Columbia, have held steady in reading for fourth and/or eighth grade. Most of the city’s 26 school districts that took part in the tests saw no change – meaning there was no improvement but also no decline, which is a bright spot given the overall results. One — Los Angeles Unified School District — saw eighth-grade reading scores rise by nine points.
Other studies have also found a sharp decline in math versus reading. Experts believe that it was easier for parents to help their children with reading than with mathematics. Discussing the book is more comfortable for most adults than helping with mathematical formulas.
“Mathematics is simply more sensitive to quality education,” Carr said. “You need math teachers to teach math.”
In the region, reading scores decreased by eight points for fourth grade but were flat at eighth. Luis de Ferbe, a counselor for the Washington, D.C. public school system, took credit for the positive outcomes for older students, saying it reflects “our investments in literacy and the support we provided even before the pandemic.”
Christina Grant, the government’s superintendent of education, expressed optimism that the numbers could improve. Washington officials plan to spend nearly $1 billion in federal aid for initiatives like summer programming, tutoring, and curriculum changes, and the city plans to hire more math and reading professionals. “We know what works, and we know that our efforts to recover will reverse those outcomes,” she said.
NAEP testing is conducted in both public and private schools across the country from which samples are taken at random. This year, 224,000 fourth grade students from about 5,700 schools participated, and 222,000 eighth grade students from about 5,100 schools participated. The test was conducted between January and March 2022.
Lauren Lumpkin contributed to this report.