Recently, new national data confirmed what educators, parents, and other studies have warned about for months: The pandemic has massively disrupted students’ learning.
Long-term trend data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that 9-year-old students scored, on average, five points lower in reading and seven points lower in math in 2022 than did their pre-pandemic peers in 2020. The declines represent the largest drops in decades.
The results underscore the steep challenge ahead for schools as the 2022-23 year begins. But NAEP data are notoriously hard to interpret. Here are five key takeaways from the data release, how to make sense of the findings, and what NAEP can—and can’t—illuminate about the effects of the past two years.
1. This is a substantial decline.
When the results came out, Peggy G. Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP, called the score drops “sobering.”
“It’s clear that COVID-19 shocked American education and stunted the academic growth of this age group of children,” she said.
But it can be hard to understand exactly what these score declines mean from looking at the numbers alone. Reading scale scores dropped from 220 to 215; math scores dropped from 241 to 234. It’s easy to ask: Is an average loss of less than 10 points in each case really that big of a deal on a scale of hundreds?
Researchers, both at NCES and outside of the agency, emphatically say yes.
Sean Reardon, a professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University, said that a 13-point decline—the amount that Black students lost in math—can be thought of as about equivalent to a year of schooling.
“That doesn’t mean that kids forgot a year’s worth of things, because these are different kids,” he said. Instead, it means that 9-year-old Black students in 2022 are about a year behind where 9-year-old Black students were in 2020.
The scale scores represent real skills. For instance, 9-year-olds who score around the 200 level in math can typically add 2-digit numbers and know basic multiplication skills, Carr said in a briefing on the results.
But as the NAEP data show, math scores have shifted downward. Fewer of the 9-year-olds in 2022 are fluent in these skills—adding 2-digit numbers and basic multiplication—than their same-age peers were just two years ago.
This decline in scores is new for 9-year-olds’ long-term trend data. For the past two decades, student scores have gradually trended up before flattening right before the pandemic.
These new 2022 scores are similar to those seen about two decades ago. But Carr cautioned that this doesn’t mean those years of upward progress are gone for good. “I think recovery is a real reality here, and we need to look to the future,” she said.
But will it take another 20 years to raise scores once again? Students scores by 2020 were the result of years of increases, including big jumps during the late 1990s through mid-2000s.
“That’s the wrong question,” Reardon said. “The question is: What’s going to happen for these [9-year-old] kids over the next years of their lives?”
Children born now will, hopefully, attend school without the kinds of major, national disruptions that children who were in school during the pandemic faced. Most likely, scores for 9-year-olds will be back to normal relatively soon, Reardon said. Instead, he said, we should look to future scores for 13-year-olds, which will present a better sense of how much ground these current students have gained.
And Carr emphasized that the goal shouldn’t just be a return to the pre-pandemic status quo, noting that NAEP scores already showed big gaps between higher- and lower-performers before COVID. “One has to ask themselves: ‘recovery,’ what does that mean, to go back to where we were before? I don’t think we want to go back to where we were before … we want to do better,” she said.
2. Declines in math were more sweeping than declines in reading—following an established pandemic trend.
Reading scores in the long-term trend assessment were mixed: On average, scores fell 5 points. But among some subgroups—students in cities, students in states in the West—they held steady. The drop in math scores was more pervasive, affecting more subgroups across the board.
These results are in line with other pandemic-era reports on student learning and progress. Analyses of interim tests given periodically in some classrooms from the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years have found that students are further behind their pre-pandemic peers in math than in reading.
Another study of interim test data found that students who were on grade level in reading at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year stayed on track throughout the spring and fall 2021—but that wasn’t true in math. In math, all students, even those who started the 2020-21 school year on grade level, improved at a slower rate during the pandemic.
It’s hard to know why math seems to be more affected than reading by school disruptions. It could be because math is almost exclusively taught in schools, unlike the reading practice kids get on their own at home. “One hypothesis … is that research has shown that math is more uniquely influenced by what happens in school,” Martin West, the academic dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education said in a public briefing. (He is also a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the exam.)
These data do suggest that schools should focus on supporting students’ math skills, but not at the expense of reading or other subjects, said Christy Hovanetz, a senior policy fellow for accountability and assessment at ExcelinEd, an advocacy group founded by Jeb Bush, Florida’s former governor. “If you look at the trends from the previous years before COVID, they were stagnant” in math and in reading, she said.
3. Gaps between higher-performing and lower-performing students are widening.
Students at all levels lost ground during the past two years, but lower-performing students saw the biggest drops.
“There has been more impact over the last two years for those who are already struggling the most,” Carr said.
These results are the continuation of a trend in NAEP data—the gap between higher-performing and lower-performing students is getting wider. Just what is causing that is unclear, but there are some clues: Lower-performing students on the test were also less likely to report that they had support—like reliable internet access, or interaction with a teacher—than their higher-performing peers.
And just as the academic effects of the pandemic have been distributed unequally, so have the consequences for student mental health—a factor that greatly shapes children’s ability to learn and engage in school.
Over the course of the past two years, experts have stressed the intertwined nature of academic achievement and social-emotional support, and have argued that academic recovery efforts must also attend to students’ mental health and feelings of belonging in school.
“I would be surprised if this was a permanent shock,” said Reardon, referring to the overall downward NAEP trend. But, he added, “the big worry is that this exacerbated inequality, and will the rebounds be unequal?”
4. Some students’ scores didn’t decline, but it’s hard to know why.
Results from some student subgroups don’t match the general downward trend. In a few instances, scores held steady.
Reading scores for students in cities stayed constant, as did reading scores for students in the West of the country. English-language learners also maintained their scores in reading between 2020 and 2022. In both subjects, there were no significant changes for Asian, Native American, or multiracial students.
The long-term trend data alone can’t explain why this is the case. Take the finding about reading scores in cities. “We don’t really have any national city-specific [education] policies, so it’s just really difficult to ascertain what is it that makes cities different,” Hovanetz said.
Later this fall, NAEP plans to release test results from its main reading and math assessments in grades 4 and 8. These results will show national data, but also break out scores by state and for city districts that are part of the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA. They could show some of the patterns in more detail.
Nevertheless, claims that specific policy decisions in one state or district caused lower or higher scores often rest on a shaky foundation. NAEP data can show where scores are going up or down, but the test can’t say why.
In general, it’s hard to link certain pandemic policies to these overall results, said West, of NAGB. That hasn’t stopped commentators from offering theories based on other research.
For example, studies show a link between remote instruction and the widening of achievement gaps. But the pandemic also brought mental health challenges for children, parents lost their jobs, and many kids had family members die from the virus. “I don’t think these data can tell us much about which of these pathways were most important,” West said.
Hastily stood-up virtual learning programs, illness, parental job loss: “There’s lots of reasons to think all of those things matter,” Reardon agreed.
5. Where do schools go from here?
In a statement following the data’s release, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said that the long-term trend results should “serve as a further call to action” for states and districts to use COVID-relief funding “quickly, effectively, and on strategies we know work.” School systems have to use the funds by the end of 2024.
District leaders say that they need more time—that extending the deadline for spending these funds would allow them to continue providing academic recovery support for longer. In a recent survey from AASA, the School Superintendents’ Association, many district leaders said that the 2024 deadline would require them to cut staff and end academic enrichment programs like summer learning that could have otherwise continued.
Hovanetz, of ExcelinEd, believes schools may need to retool their central instructional approach. She noted again that NAEP scores had been flat even before the pandemic. “Whatever you’re going to be doing now shouldn’t be a quick fix remedy, it should be a change in the core of how you’re doing things.”
Even school districts that are trying to make these kinds of changes have struggled.
For instance, some systems have embraced the idea of accelerated learning—helping students access grade-level work by backfilling missed content and skills as needed, rather than going back to remediate entire grades worth of work. But leaders say adopting this approach in a school system that hasn’t used it before requires teacher training and planning time to make it successful.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2022 edition of Education Week as Digging Deeper Into the Stark Declines on NAEP: 5 Things to Know