Students’ test scores plummeted during the pandemic

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Test scores in elementary school math and reading have fallen to levels not seen in decades, according to the first nationally representative report comparing student performance just before the pandemic hit performance two years later.

Math scores fell seven points during that period, marking a first-ever drop, while reading scores fell five points and caused the largest drop in 30 years in the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as “the report card.” of the nation”. The students who took the tests – administered from January to March in 2020 and in 2022 – were 9 years old and mostly in fourth grade.

“These results are sobering,” said Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the tests. “It is clear that Covid-19 has shocked American education and stunted academic growth for this age group.”

The drop – which she described as “historic” – left little doubt as to the toll the pandemic was taking. This year’s average math score of 234 was comparable to the 1999 average score, and the reading score of 215 was similar to the 2004 score. How long it might take to catch up is unclear and likely not understood until further test results are analyzed.

Carr said the academic losses are part of a complex picture of pandemic education. Other studies have shown increases in classroom disruption, school violence, absenteeism, cyberbullying and job vacancies among teachers and staff, and schools also say more students are seeking mental health services. “There are many factors that put this data that we’re looking at into context,” she said.

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Schools began struggling in the spring of 2020 as school buildings across the country closed and learning stalled in the final months of the school year. Then, for at least part of the next school year, millions of students learned remotely or on hybrid schedules that mixed virtual and in-person classes. Schools opened for in-person classes last year, but many have struggled repeatedly to cope with Covid surges, quarantines, mask requirements and staff shortages. A number of educators called it the toughest time of their careers.

The stark results are likely to spark further debate about the wisdom of virtual learning and the speed at which schools are reopening. There is a broad consensus among educators that most students do better when they are in a classroom with a teacher.

The new data shows many of the most vulnerable students have fared the worst. Children who performed at the lowest level lost the most in reading and math this year – with scores plummeting by 10 to 12 points. In comparison, top-performing students fell two to three points on average.

“While we’re seeing declines at all levels of achievement, the growing gap between students at the top and those at the bottom is an important but overlooked trend,” said Martin West, a member of the board that sets the guidelines for NAEP and academic dean at Harvard Graduate School of Education, in a statement. “These results show that this gap has continued to widen during the pandemic.”

“Supporting the academic recovery of underperforming students should be a top priority for educators and policymakers nationwide,” West said.

Math scores for black students fell 13 points, compared to eight points for Hispanic students and five points for white students. In reading, all three groups fell six points. No statistically significant change in scores was reported among Asian, Native American, or mixed-race students.

Similarly, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and English learners all dropped seven to eight points in math scores. Reading scores also declined, except for English learners.

Geography made a difference, with math performance falling eight points in the Northeast, nine points in the Midwest, seven points in the South and five points in the West. Suburban schools performed worse than schools in urban or rural areas.

For all the declines, flat readings drew attention: No measurable decline in reading one found in the west, in cities or in the country. “The fact that student reading performance in cities has remained resilient — given the extreme crises cities are grappling with during the pandemic — is particularly significant,” Carr said

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Seventy percent of 9-year-olds tested this year recalled learning remotely at some point during the pandemic. More than 80 percent of higher-achieving students said they always have access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet. Among the lower-performing students, about 60 percent had consistent access.

NAEP tests are administered at random public and private schools across the country, according to NCES. The test for 9-year-olds consisted of three 15-minute blocks of questions, most of which were multiple-choice, with more time allotted for answering a questionnaire. Test takers are also randomly selected – a total of 14,800 students from 410 schools. More than 90 percent of schools were surveyed in both 2020 and 2022.

Education Minister Miguel Cardona said in a statement that the NAEP results cast “a glaring light” on the experiences of the past two years, but should remind people to step up efforts to accelerate student learning to meet student needs in mental health and invest in educators. States should redirect federal relief funds “even more effectively and quickly” to proven strategies, including “high-dose” tutoring and after-school and summer programs, Cardona said.

Federal officials said the results are part of a special collection of long-term trend data. A fuller look at student performance is expected later this year. It will include national, state and selected school district data for fourth and eighth grade students in math and reading.

NAEP testing is a Congressional-approved project sponsored by the Department of Education and administered by its statistical arm, the NCES.

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