Student Achievement

Reading and Math Achievement Is Getting Worse, Nation’s Report Card Shows

By Sarah Schwartz — June 21, 2023 | Corrected: June 21, 2023 5 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the ILO Group. It is a for-profit strategy and policy organization.

Teenagers’ math and reading performance has continued to fall on the test known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” with math scores showing the largest-ever declines since the National Assessment of Educational Progress began tracking long-term trends in student performance.

Scores for 13-year-olds fell 9 points in math between the 2019-20 school year and the 2022-23 school year. The average reading scores fell 4 points.

The results are the latest in a line of data from the NAEP over the past few years that have all shown widespread declines in student achievement. This test, though, is different from the NAEP’s subject-area assessments.

The long-term trend assessment, given in math and reading, has remained relatively unchanged since it was first administered in the 1970s. This allows for comparisons over time. It’s also focused on basic skills, in comparison to the subject-area assessments, which are revised periodically in response to changes in academic standards.

These results show “troubling gaps” for this group of test-takers, who were in the 4th or 5th grade when the pandemic first shut down schools, said Peggy Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP, in a call with reporters.

“What we may be seeing here is that the learning disruptions further undermined the development of basic skills that students need at this age—particularly the lower-performing students whose achievement has been declining long before the COVID pandemic,” she said.

Declines in scores weren’t evenly distributed: In math, lower-performing students’ scores fell further than those of their higher-performing peers; Black students’ performance declined more than white students’ performance.

These results—the downward trajectory of student scores, the widening academic gaps between historically marginalized students and their peers—aren’t new. They’re a continuation of patterns that emerged in long-term trend results released in 2021, which measured student performance pre-pandemic.

But the data underscore that supporting student learning in the wake of the pandemic is a long-term project, Carr said.

“This reinforces the fact that academic recovery is going to take some time—and it does not mean simply going back to the level of achievement we saw before the pandemic,” she said. “We have to remember that these are going to continue to be challenging times for us for a while, and the focus should be on the whole child, not just academics.”

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said he has been “encouraged” by several states that have reported returns to pre-pandemic achievement levels on their state assessments, but noted that the NAEP release “reminds us how far we still need to go.”

Gaps widening between lowest- and highest-performers

These long-term trend tests assess a smaller range of skills than the main NAEP assessments.

In reading, the long-term trend assessment measures students’ ability to locate specific information, make inferences, and identify the main ideas of passages. The math test covers a range of topics—numbers, measurement, geometry, probability and statistics, algebra—but is mostly focused on basic skills and recall of definitions.

In this test administration, student performance dropped across the board. Students in all percentiles—from the highest-achieving to the lowest-achieving—saw declines in reading and math.

In reading, scores of Black students, white students, and students of two or more races dropped, while the scores of Hispanic students, American Indian and Alaska Native students, and Asian students saw no significant change. All racial groups saw declines in math, though the decline for Asian students was not statistically significant.

But even though most students’ scores dropped, some groups fell more than others—further widening gaps in math between high-scoring and low-scoring students, and between white and Black students.

“It’s time for some serious reflection,” said Mark Miller, an 8th grade math teacher at Cheyenne Mountain Junior High in Colorado Springs, Colo., and a former member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the NAEP. “There’s some urgency here to look at mathematics education as a whole.”

He emphasized the importance of assessing students’ needs and planning instruction in response. “There might need to be some pre-teaching, there might need to be some work that’s done prior to the new unit to fill in the skills that are missing and to move forward,” he said.

See also

Maria Lopez teaches a 4th-grade bilingual reading class at Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School in Dallas.
Maria Lopez teaches a 4th-grade bilingual reading class at Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School in Dallas.
Laura Buckman for Education Week

Students also need to feel like math is relevant to their lives, he said—an understanding that teachers can foster by engaging students in real-world problem solving in classes.

Results from the NAEP’s student survey also show big differences in Algebra enrollment between student groups. Among students scoring below the 25th percentile on the math NAEP, only 10 percent said they were currently enrolled in Algebra. That’s compared to 44 percent of students scoring at or above the 75th percentile.

A call for ‘urgency and focus’

In addition to questions about course-taking, the survey asked students about their academic habits and learning environment.

One in 10 students said that they missed more than five days of school over the past month before they took the survey in fall 2022. That doubled the percentage of students who said the same in early 2020.

Students are engaging less outside of school, too—there’s a small, but statistically significant, decline in the percentage of students saying they read for fun almost every day, from 17 percent in 2019-20 to 14 percent in 2022-23.

Together, these results raise worrying questions about how schools motivate—or don’t motivate—students, said Julia Rafal-Baer, the co-founder and CEO of ILO Group, a strategy and policy organization geared toward women in education leadership, and a member of NAGB.

“Are our schools an engaging enough place for our kids?” she asked. “Do [they] fill them with moments of hopefulness and curiosity about their future?”

Going forward, states and districts need clear processes for evaluating their ongoing recovery plans—for both academics and student well-being, Rafal-Baer said.

“I think the question now … is really starting to better understand what is happening across the country in places that are really committed to treating these results with the level of urgency and focus that is necessary,” she said.

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