WASHINGTON — Test scores in elementary school math and reading plummeted to levels unseen for decades, according to the first nationally representative report comparing student achievement from just before the pandemic to performance two years later.
Math scores dropped seven points during that period, marking a first-ever decline, while reading scores slipped five points, producing the largest dip in 30 years on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, or NAEP, often called “the nation’s report card.” The students who took the tests — given 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, or NCES, which administers the tests. “It’s clear that COVID-19 shocked American education and stunted the academic growth of this age group.”
The falloff — which she called “historic” — left little doubt about the pandemic’s toll. The average math score of 234 this year was comparable to the average score recorded in 1999, and the reading score of 215 was similar to the 2004 score. How long it might take to catch up is unclear and not likely to be understood until further test results are analyzed.
Carr said the academic losses are part of a complex picture of pandemic schooling. Other studies have shown a rise in classroom disruption, school violence, absenteeism, cyberbullying, and teacher and staff vacancies, and schools also say more students are seeking mental health services. “There are a lot of factors that contextualize these data that we’re looking at,” she said.
Schools began to struggle in spring 2020, as school buildings were shuttered nationally and learning faltered during the last few months of the school year. Then, for at least part of the next school year, millions of students learned remotely or under hybrid schedules that blended virtual and in-person classes. Last year, schools opened for in-person classes, but many scrambled repeatedly to manage COVID surges, quarantines, mask mandates, and staffing shortages. A number of educators called it the toughest time of their careers.
The stark results are likely to stir more debate about the wisdom of virtual learning and the speed at which schools reopened. There is wide agreement among educators that most students do better when they are in a classroom with a teacher.
The new data show that many of the most vulnerable students fared the worst. Children who performed at the lowest level lost the most in reading and math this year — with scores that plunged 10 to 12 points. By comparison, students who performed at the highest level fell an average of two to three points.
“While we see declines at all performance levels, 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 governing board that sets policy for NAEP and academic dean at Harvard Graduate School of Education, in a statement. “These results show that this gap widened further during the pandemic.”
“Supporting the academic recovery of lower-performing students should be a top priority for educators and policymakers nationwide,” West said.
Math scores for Black students tumbled 13 points, compared with eight points for Hispanic students and five points for white students. In reading, all three groups fell by six points. No statistically significant change in scores was reported for Asian, Native American, or multiracial students.
Similarly, math scores sank seven to eight points for students who are economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, and English language learners. Reading scores dipped too, except for English language 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 fared worse than schools located in urban or rural areas.
Amid all of the declines, flat scores drew attention: No measurable decline in reading was found in the West, in cities or in rural areas. “The fact that reading achievement from students in cities held steady — when you consider the extreme crises cities are dealing with during the pandemic — is especially significant,” Carr said
Seventy percent of the 9-year-olds tested this year recalled learning remotely at some point during the pandemic. More than 80 percent of higher-performing students reported always having access to a laptop, a desktop computer or a tablet. Among lower-performing students, about 60 percent had constant access.
NAEP testing is done at public and private schools across the country that are randomly sampled, according to NCES. The test for 9-year-olds included three 15-minute blocks of questions, most of which were multiple choice, with more time allotted for answering a questionnaire. Test takers are randomly sampled, too — 14,800 students in all, from 410 schools. More than 90 percent of schools were sampled in both 2020 and 2022.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement that the NAEP results cast the experiences of the last two years in “a stark light” but should remind people to press ahead with efforts to accelerate student learning, support student mental health needs, and invest in educators. States should steer federal relief funds “even more effectively and expeditiously” to proven strategies including “high-dosage” tutoring and after-school and summer programs, Cardona said.