Mathematics

Explaining That Steep Drop in Math Scores on NAEP: 5 Takeaways

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 24, 2022 6 min read
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The National Assessment for Educational Progress announced historic declines in math for students in its main NAEP for 2022, with average scores dropping 5 points, to 236 out of 500, in 4th grade, and 8 points, to 274, in 8th grade.

NAEP, administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, takes a snapshot of progress every two years, but was delayed by the pandemic from 2021 to 2022. That makes this the comprehensive assessment’s first look at students’ math achievement since the pandemic began. The 2022 assessment looked at the progress of a representative sample of more than 116,000 4th graders and 111,000 8th graders in every state.

Here’s what you need to know.

1. There’s bad news for (nearly) everybody.

Nobody improved in math in 2022. I mean nobody: Students in grades 4 and 8, low-income and wealthier students, boys and girls, students in every racial or ethnic group, and students with and without disabilities, in every region of the country, all stayed flat or fell back.

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Image of declining scores in reading and math NAEP.
Illustration by Gina Tomko/Education Week and iStock/Getty

Asian, Black, Hispanic, and white students all saw drops in average scores in 4th and 8th grades since 2019. Native American students lost some of their progress in 4th grade but held flat in 8th.

None of the states or large school districts that participate in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment improved in math at either grade. Only students in Utah and students in the Department of Defense schools stayed steady in math at 8th grade in 2022, while 4th graders in 10 states (not including Utah) and the Department of Defense schools also showed no change since 2019.

Eighth graders in every kind of school—private Roman Catholic, charter, and traditional public schools—lost ground in math, as did 4th graders in both kinds of public schools. However, 4th graders in Catholic schools held steady at 246.

Charter schools saw the biggest declines in math: 4th graders in those schools declined 6 points, to 232, and 9 points, to 268, for 8th graders.

2. This shouldn’t be a surprise.

The results of the main NAEP come on the heels of similarly grim results from other major tests, detailing the ongoing fallout of pandemic disruptions to schooling and more than a decade of faltering academic progress.

Last month, NAEP’s long-term trend study, which uses a pool of mostly the same questions to compare the achievement of 9-year-olds over time, showed the first decline in math in the test’s 50-year history. And independent, large-scale testing groups such as NWEA and Amplify have been sounding the alarm about learning loss—particularly in math—during the pandemic. The 4th and 8th graders participating in NAEP in 2022 would have been in 2nd and 6th grades, respectively, when the pandemic began and schools faced extended and widespread closures.

Yet experts also noted that the pandemic provided more of a tipping point than a single push. Math scores have been falling off for years, particularly for those in the lowest 10 percent to 25 percent of students.

“Let’s be very clear here: The data prior to the pandemic did not reflect an education system that was on the right track. The pandemic simply made it worse. It took poor performance and dropped it down even further,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, speaking in a briefing with reporters on the NAEP results. “As an educator and as a parent, that’s heartbreaking and it’s horrible. It’s an urgent call to action.”

3. There are more students now with severe needs in math.

Only 37 percent of 4th graders and 27 percent of 8th graders are proficient in math—meaning they are considered capable of handling challenging academic work—representing significant declines in both the number of proficient and advanced students in both grades. The share of advanced-level students fell from 9 percent to 8 percent in 4th grade and from 10 percent to 7 percent in 8th grade.

By contrast, 38 percent of 8th graders and a quarter of 4th graders cannot meet NAEP’s lowest benchmark—the basic level. More than half of students in poverty as well as Black, Hispanic, and Native American students in grade 8 performed below the basic level in 2022, along with more than a quarter of white students. In 4th grade, more than 40 percent of Black and Native American students, more than a third of Hispanic students, and 14 percent of white students performed at that lowest level in math.

What does that mean for students? In 4th grade, fewer than 3 out of 5 students now can tell whether whole numbers are even or odd—down from 67 percent before the pandemic. Only 51 percent understand that subtraction is the inverse of addition, and just over 1 in 10 4th graders can identify numbers that can divide into another number without a remainder.

Among 8th graders, only 44 percent can solve a problem using division, down from half in 2019, and only 1 in 5 can use an interactive tool to plot a point on a number line.

Fewer 8th graders said they had a lot of confidence in their math ability, and fewer took Algebra 1 in 8th grade, compared to 2019. And 13 percent of 8th graders attend schools where more than a fifth of students are taking multiple remedial math classes.

“Eighth grade is that gateway to more advanced mathematical course-taking,” said Peggy Carr, NCES commissioner. “This is what these students are missing. They’re missing important skills that will prepare them eventually for [science, technology, engineering, and math] careers. We need to be concerned about getting these students back on track so that they can be prepared for global competition in these areas.”

4. Teachers are overwhelmed.

While fewer teachers reported classroom supplies are a problem in 2022, more teachers problems with too many teaching hours and not enough workspace, teachers reported as part of NAEP’s background survey. For example, 27 percent of 4th graders and 29 percent of 8th graders now have teachers who say their work hours have become a “moderate” or “serious” problem. That’s a higher share in both grades than before the pandemic.

While a majority of students still have educators who are satisfied with being a teacher, teachers were generally less satisfied and inspired by the profession in both grades than in 2019. That may be both a cause and a symptom of widespread teacher shortages, in which math is the subject with the greatest need for staff.

Significantly more 4th grade teachers have received training or become proficient in education technology since the onset of the pandemic. Forty-two percent of 4th grade students now have teachers with a full or part-time math coach to support their instruction, up from 37 percent in 2019. However, less than half of teachers who reported having a math coach had one who worked with 4th grade teachers individually or worked specifically on 4th grade content to a large extent.

5. It’s going to take a lot of time and money to fix this.

The federal government has already dedicated $190 billion through ESSER and the American Recovery Plan to help schools address lost student learning during the pandemic.

Recent research suggests that’s not nearly enough money, for a long enough time frame. One study published in the journal Education Researcher earlier this month estimated schools will need $500 billion in additional funding—and targeted more specifically to high-need students—to fully recover.

“State education leaders are committed to accelerating learning and recognize it will take years to fully recover from the impacts of the pandemic,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “States have put interventions in place, and many of these began in earnest just before students took the 2022 NAEP exam. We are grateful to have another two years of federal COVID-19 relief funding that will allow these interventions to have their full effect on student learning.”

NAEP background survey data show nearly 70 percent of 8th graders attended schools in 2022 that offered supplemental math instruction weekly to nearly every day, and more than 1 in 4 students received math tutoring outside of school at least once a month.

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as 5 NAEP Takeaways on ...That Steep Drop in Math Scores

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