As the country reels from historic drops in academic performance during the pandemic, results for the nation’s largest school districts show a hodgepodge of difficult-to-interpret information with few measurable trends.
What the National Assessment of Educational Progress results do show, though, is just how hard students across the country were hit, regardless of their location or how long they took classes on their laptops at home.
“For me, it is a confirmation of what we knew, which is that the pandemic had a severe impact on our kids’ opportunities to learn,” said Eric Gordon, chief executive officer of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “We’re seeing that in big cities like Cleveland, the overall state scores, and the national scores, so it was a global pandemic that was not targeted on any one group. It hit us all.”
In general, the country’s largest school districts lost less ground on NAEP , compared to the national results. The most significant losses did not seem to align cleanly with how much virtual learning students in those districts received, countering the idea that those that participated in virtual classes the longest would see the most drastic declines.
The test was administered in spring 2022, the first time it was given since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. National results showed the biggest drop in math performance in 4th and 8th grades since the program began in 1990. In reading, 4th and 8th graders across the country are performing on par with students in the 1990s.
Large city schools performed worse than the national average in 4th grade math, but better in 8th grade reading. Trends for large districts mirrored the significant drop in national performance in 4th grade reading, down by three points, and in 8th grade math, which fell by three points. (The exams are scored on a 0 to 500 point scale.)
Within those trends were both high and low points. Los Angeles Unified saw a rare, and major increase of 9 points in 8th grade reading performance compared to 2019. But in Cleveland, 4th-grade reading scores dropped 16 points between 2019 and 2022—the largest decrease among the participating urban districts. In math, its 4th-grade scores fell 15 points, tied with Baltimore City for the largest decrease in urban districts.
NAEP does not report district-by-district results for everyone—only those large urban districts that voluntarily participate in the Trial Urban District Assessment. Data is not available for smaller or more rural districts outside of aggregate national scores.
Regardless, Gordon said the data gives districts across the country a new benchmark to measure students’ progress post-pandemic, and the information they need to move forward.
“I don’t know that there’s much use in looking backward. We know that the world went through two years of incredible difficulty and so to wax and say, ‘Wow, look at the impact,’ who didn’t know that?,” Gordon said. “So we’ve got to get focused on the recovery, and not admiring a problem that we already knew existed without the data.”
A silver lining in Los Angeles
While nearly all districts face unprecedented drops in math scores that were already subpar pre-pandemic, the Los Angeles Unified district is celebrating a rare, and major, increase of 9 points in 8th grade reading performance compared to 2019.
In a statement Monday, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho attributed students’ success to the district’s “intentional planning and utilization of ESSR funds on instructional programs, teacher incentives and connectivity support.”
He highlighted additional instruction time, expanded tutoring and summer school opportunities, and professional development for teachers at the highest-needs schools.
“The Los Angeles Unified community has worked tirelessly over the past few years and endured incredible challenges throughout the pandemic, so this news is truly a bright spot after a period of darkness,” Carvalho said in the statement. “The strategies we have implemented to address learning loss and achievement gaps are working. Is there more work to be done? No doubt. But these are early signs that our deliberate and strategic initiatives are getting students back on track after the past few years of adversity.”
Will the results prompt more state and local investment in recovery?
Since buildings began reopening for in-person classes, district leaders have been dealing with the profound losses in achievement and missed learning from virtual classes, so the new NAEP results were largely unsurprising.
For months, the focus has been on what comes next, though new data helps inform what students need and underscores its urgency, Philadelphia school board President Joyce Wilkerson said a few days before the scores were released.
During a town hall event last week at the fall conference of the Council of the Great City Schools, a group that represents more than 70 urban districts, Wilkerson said it will be important to keep the focus on academic achievement so districts continue to get the support they need to provide learning recovery services to students.
“My concern is it’s going to be a one-day story,” she said. “It has been extraordinarily difficult for us to create a narrative … and have it be sustained over a period of time so that people grapple in a real, honest way about what it’s going to take for our students to achieve. We need to keep the focus on academic achievement and what we need to do over time.”
Michael Casserly, strategic adviser for the Council, correctly predicted at that event that the results would be “messier” than the widespread predictions that conservative-leaning states that returned students to in-person school earlier would outperform others.
He said the results would likely reignite debates about school closures, their length, and effectiveness, but said those debates are a “distraction that takes away from the work districts have to do to address the loss of learning that’s bound to be evident in these scores.”
My concern is [NAEP] is going to be a one-day story.
Speaking about Cleveland’s results, Gordon said Tuesday that the assessment was administered at the peak of the Omicron variant surge, when the city was particularly hard hit. His message to his community is that the data shows the multi-year pandemic is going to take a multi-year recovery. Everyone, from educators to parents to lawmakers, needs to stay focused long-term on that recovery, he said.
Ray Hart, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said the data is a “wake up call” that the local, state, and federal governments need to make significant, long-term investments in public education.
Too many initiatives, like hiring more staff or increasing teachers’ pay, aren’t practical with federal COVID-19 relief money alone because it is temporary, he said.
“Putting money away into a rainy day fund and not making investments in education right now doesn’t make much sense,” Hart said. “I think all of us should want to urgently invest in and more permanently support education so that long-term plans for how to address the needs of our students can happen.”