Student Achievement

Students’ Math and Reading Plummet, Erasing Years of Gains, National Assessment Finds

By Sarah Schwartz — September 01, 2022 | Updated: September 01, 2022 4 min read
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The pandemic brought historic declines in students’ math and reading abilities, with students who were already the furthest behind before COVID losing the most ground, according to new data from the nation’s only long-term measure of student progress.

The results, released today from the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Long-Term Trend test, paint a stark picture of 9-year-olds’ achievement in 2022. Over the past two years, math scores dropped by seven points—the first ever decline in the long-term trend assessment’s 50-year history. Reading scores also fell by five points, the biggest drop since 1990.

“These results are sobering,” Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP, said in a call with reporters. “It’s clear that COVID-19 shocked American education and stunted the academic growth of this age group of children.”

These data confirm a chorus of other reports showing the academic impact of the pandemic. Interim test data from assessment providers and state test results have also revealed slackening or backtracking in student progress. But the NAEP long-term trend results are unique in that they provide a national snapshot that can be reliably compared to student achievement in years past.

NAEP’s long-term trend study is a separate test from the other subject-area assessments that students take. While NAEP’s main tests are updated regularly to reflect changes in standards and curricula, the long-term trend test has been relatively unchanged since it was first administered in the 1970s. That means it permits comparisons in students’ abilities across decades.

The last scheduled long-term trend test occurred right before the pandemic hit, in 2020. This administration was added for January through March 2022, in order to measure the effect that the COVID had on student scores.

However the data is sliced, the effects of the pandemic are clear: Many subgroups show declines in student scores. White, Black, and Hispanic students all saw drops in reading and math scores. Students across all regions of the country fell in math; students in every region except the West fell in reading.

“This report is disappointing, yet the factors contributing to the findings are not surprising given what the education landscape has looked like over the past two-and-a-half years,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, in a statement on Thursday.

But students who were already struggling before COVID hit saw the greatest drops in scores during the past two years.

figure 1 mathematics
figure 1 reading

This inequality in scores is consistent with trends that predate the pandemic. Long-term trend data from before COVID, released this past October, showed that the lowest-performing students were already losing more ground in reading and math than their higher-performing peers.

Other gaps expanded, too. White students’ math scores only fell five points, while Black students’ scores fell 13 points, widening the gap between the two from 25 points in 2020 to 33 points in 2022.

Still, some subgroups’ scores held steady over the past two years. There were no statistically significant changes in scores in either subject for Asian, Native American, or multiracial students. And in reading, students in cities maintained their scores while suburban students’ scores fell, narrowing the city-suburb gap. Reading scores for English-language learners also remained steady.

“These results are quite notable at this moment in time,” Carr said. “The fact that reading achievement among students in the cities held steady, when you consider the extreme crisis cities were dealing with during the pandemic, is especially significant.”

Lower-performing students had fewer supports during remote learning

In addition to student performance, the results also provide new insight into the conditions of remote learning during the 2020-21 school year. Students who took the test were asked about the support they had at home—and then researchers were able to show how that support differed for students who performed well on the assessment and students who performed less well.

The results show glaring inequities.

For instance, among students who scored at or above the 75th percentile in reading—the high performers—83 percent said that they had access to a desktop computer, laptop, or tablet all the time during remote learning. Among lower-performing students, at or below the 25th percentile, only 58 percent said the same.

These discrepancies persist across all of the categories that NAEP reported—from access to high-speed internet to having a quiet place to work to having a teacher available to help with assignments.

figure 2 reading

While suggestive, the results don’t determine a cause-and-effect relationship—from this data alone, it’s not possible to say that less access to support resources is what caused students to score lower on the long-term trend assessment.

But these results are in line with other data throughout the pandemic that has shown that students with the highest need were often the least likely to have access to reliable internet connection and space to work during remote learning.

“Decision-makers at all levels have not done nearly enough to address the long-standing resource inequities that prohibit Black, Latino, and students from low-income backgrounds from reaching their full academic potential,” said Denise Forte, the interim CEO of The Education Trust, in a statement on Thursday.

“And while there are decision-makers that are rightly pushing for equity and justice in schools, they are far too often met with fierce opposition from those who want to maintain the status quo.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as Students’ Math and Reading Plummet, Erasing Years of Gains, National Assessment Finds

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