The pandemic has smacked American students back to the last century in math and reading achievement, according to the tests known as the Nation’s Report Card.
Results for students who took the test in spring 2022—the first main National Assessment of Educational Progress administration for these grades since the pandemic began—show the biggest drop in math performance in 4th and 8th grades since the testing program began in 1990. In reading, 4th and 8th graders likewise are performing on par with students in the 1990s, and about a third of students in both grades can’t read at even the “basic” achievement level—the lowest level on the test.
Academic declines on NAEP were sweeping, spanning low-income and wealthier students, boys and girls, and most racial or ethnic groups in both subjects and grades.
That made for some achievement gaps changing in unusual ways. For example, from 2019 to 2022, reading performance fell significantly for white 8th graders, but not their Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Native American classmates, leading to smaller racial differences in performance. In 4th grade, Black, Hispanic, white, and Native American students’ average reading scores fell in 2022, while Asian students’ average scores improved, widening the white-Asian performance gap from 7 points in 2019 to 12 points in 2022.
“This is not just nerdy education policy stuff. This is really about the future of young people. The world we’re moving towards is one that requires significantly higher skills to be successful, to live lives of purpose and meaning,” said Jeb Bush, former Florida governor and founder of the education advocacy groups ExcelinEd and Chiefs for Change, in a briefing before the NAEP results were released. “If we allow these learning gaps to grow, and if we allow for the decline in learning to just stand pat ... a lot of dreams are gonna be shattered over the long haul.”
The results come on the heels of NAEP’s long-term trend data released last month, which also showed historically poor performance for 9-year-olds.
Eighth graders saw the steepest drops in both subjects, and high schools will have to significantly ramp up academic support for the students who entered high school this fall, said Beverly Perdue, a former governor of North Carolina and chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the testing program.
“Otherwise,” she said, “students will graduate and enter college and the workforce without the skills and knowledge we need to be globally competitive.”
Graduation rates fell in at least 31 states for the class of 2021, and the latest graduating class of 2022 had historically low scores on college placement tests.
In math, pool of struggling learners grows
The average NAEP math score fell 5 points in 4th grade, to 236 out of 500, and in 8th grade fell 8 points, to 274 out of 500. In prior years, the top-performing 10 percent of math students held their ground, while the lowest-achieving students fell. This time, however, math achievement fell across every percentile, even for the highest performers.
“Normally, for a NAEP assessment at the national level, we’re talking about significant differences of 2 and 3 points. So an 8-point decline that we’re seeing in the math data is stark; it is troubling; it is significant,” said Peggy Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP.
In both grades 4 and 8, more students cannot meet even the basic level of math achievement, according to the NAEP report. The pool of advanced performers in math has likewise shrunk at both grades, though top readers have held steady.
Roberto Rodríguez, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy, noted that, in a prior NAEP study of districts’ practices during the pandemic, 75 percent of districts reported that they held remedial programs this summer, and more than half of districts in the study reported using intensive tutoring to help catch students up.
“Kids need more time,” said Patricia Levesque the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), in a briefing before the NAEP results were released. “They lost time over the last several years, of getting instruction that they need in math, and we need to figure out ways to give them more time.”
Levesque pointed to states like Tennessee, which is requiring high-dosage tutoring for students performing below grade level. However, with large swaths of students now far behind, paying for intensive tutoring may be hard to sustain after federal pandemic recovery funding runs out.
And it’s not clear teachers feel ready to take on the severity of students’ learning loss.
More than a third of 4th graders and 21 percent of 8th graders who participated in NAEP had a teacher who reported spending nearly every day on remedial material in math. But less than half of students in either grade had teachers who were confident in their ability to address knowledge and skill gaps in math.
“We’ve known for decades that many teachers, especially in high-poverty areas, are not as mathematically confident,” said Zalman Usiskin, a professor emeritus and director of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project. “They tend to focus more on memorization and the most basic of basic skills, not on problem-solving. ... and the prediction has to be that it’s going to get worse, because teachers now are trying to catch up students who are behind because of pandemic-related disruptions.”
Reading drops are smaller but hit low-achievers hard
Nationwide, the average reading score on NAEP fell 3 points from 2019 to 2022, to 217 in grade 4 and 260 in grade 8. While not as large a drop as math, it represented a significant decline in reading skills for both grades for all but the top 10 percent of 4th graders.
While experts have urged schools to accelerate students’ learning in order to help them make up lost academic ground, more than half of 8th graders had teachers who reported using remedial measures at least once or twice a week, and 20 percent had teachers who did so nearly every day. Among 4th graders, 70 percent of teachers reported using remedial measures a couple times a week. Moreover, about 1 in 3 students who took NAEP in 2022 had a teacher who reported covering the previous year’s material and using remedial instruction every day or nearly every day.
When it comes to acceleration, “it just seems as if we expect teachers to know how to do that,” said Kymyona Burk, the policy director for early literacy at ExcelinEd, and a former literacy director for the state of Mississippi. “We have to invest in people, we have to invest in their knowledge.”
In both grades 4 and 8, larger numbers of students cannot read at even the basic academic level than was the case in 2019, according to the 2022 NAEP report. Top readers have held steady, but gained little ground.
Burk said states need to bolster the use of science-based reading instruction to help students who started school during the pandemic and may struggle more with foundational reading skills.
Looking ahead, there are some signs of recovery in reading at least. One study by the testing group Amplify looked at more than 300,000 K-3 students in 43 states who took the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, assessment, this fall—which would be the most recent, available testing data. That study found that while students in all grades remain below their pre-pandemic reading achievement, the share of students who started school this fall on track to read on grade level by the end of the academic year ticked up in every grade, ranging from 33 percent of kindergarteners to 55 percent of 3rd graders.
“The news may be still a bit grim, although the positive side is that, directionally, we are seeing that students at the beginning of this year are more prepared for school than they were at the beginning of last year,” said Paul Gazzerro, the director of data analysis for Amplify.
Still, the Amplify study suggests large shares of students—ranging from half of kindergartners to 30 percent of 3rd graders—won’t read on grade level by the end of this school year without significant, intensive interventions.
Well before NAEP results were made public, some education pundits predicted students in states that reopened their schools earlier in the pandemic would have better scores than students in states with longer pandemic-related spans of virtual schooling. Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, suggested that differences in the performance between states that reopened school buildings for in-person learning earlier in the pandemic could become fodder in midterm elections.
But Carr, the NCES commissioner, strongly disagreed with interpreting the results in that way.
“There’s nothing in this data that says we can draw a straight line between the time spent in remote learning, in and of itself, and student achievement,” Carr said. “And let’s not forget that remote learning looked very different all across the United States. ... We have massive comprehensive decline everywhere, whether some were in remote learning longer or shorter than others.”
By the start of 2020-21, the first full school year of the pandemic, an Education Week analysis found that several states had mandated full-time, in-person learning, (Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North and South Carolinas, Oregon, Texas, Washington, and West Virginia) but nearly three-quarters of the 100 largest school districts (representing 9 million students) opened that fall only with virtual instruction.
In reading, 8th graders lost ground in all but two of those states; Iowa and Texas had flat scores, but so did several late-opening states like California, New York, and New Jersey. Performance was more mixed at 4th grade, with seven early-opening states and at least one late-opening one, California, seeing no change in reading achievement during the pandemic.
The other six early-opening states saw drops in 4th grade reading in 2022. In math, only South Carolina and Iowa among the early-opening states held steady in 4th grade. The rest saw drops in math achievement from 2019 to 2022. And Utah, the only state that saw no decline in 8th grade math, had no mandate on schools reopening at the start of 2020-21.
Data visualizations by Sarah Sparks and Laura Baker.
A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Two Decades of Progress, Nearly Gone: National Math, Reading Scores Hit Historic Lows