The Covid-19 pandemic took a “deep toll” on American schoolchildren, causing historic setbacks in math and reading and erasing decades of academic progress, a government agency warned Monday.
In the US, math scores fell their worst ever, and reading scores dropped to levels not seen since the early 1990s, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress — known as the “Report Map of the Nation.”
The aggregated scores of hundreds of thousands of fourth- and eighth-graders showed that nearly four in ten eighth-graders failed to understand basic math concepts — a sign of the devastating effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on American children.
The same agency last month revealed how math and reading scores for other age groups had fallen as well, blaming massive school closures during the pandemic for increasing education for millions of children.
“The results show the huge toll on student learning during the pandemic as the magnitude and scope of the declines are the largest ever in mathematics,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.
NAEP assessment results are reported as mean scores on a scale of 0-500. They are derived from students’ responses to assessment questions and summarize overall performance levels
A student attends a remote math class from his home in Kensington, Maryland, in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic closed classrooms. Test results dropped significantly during the outbreak
National Center for Education Commissioner Peggy Carr laments the ‘deep toll’ on schoolchildren
It’s no surprise that kids are lagging behind.
The pandemic turned every facet of life upside down, leaving millions of months or more of learning at home. The results released this week show the depth of those setbacks and the magnitude of the challenge schools face in helping students catch up.
Education Minister Miguel Cardona said it is a sign that schools need to redouble their efforts by using billions of dollars Congress has given to schools to help students recover.
“Let me be very clear: these results are not acceptable,” Cardona said.
The NAEP test is usually given every two years. It was taken between January and March by a sample of students in every state, along with 26 of the nation’s largest school districts. The scores had already stalled before the pandemic, but the new results show a decline on a scale not seen before.
The students scored lower for both math and reading than the students who were tested in 2019. But as reading scores fell, math scores plummeted by the widest margins in the history of the NAEP test, which began in 1969.
Math scores were worst among eighth graders, with 38 percent earning scores considered “below base” — a boundary that measures, for example, whether students can find the third corner of a triangle when given the other two.
That is worse than in 2019, when 31 percent of the group eight scored below that level.
No part of the country was exempt. Each region saw test scores shift, and each state saw declines in at least one subject.
Several major districts saw test scores drop by more than 10 points.
Cleveland saw the biggest drop, dropping 16 points in fourth-grade reading, along with a 15-point drop in fourth-grade math. Shelby County in Baltimore and Tennessee also saw steep declines.
“This is more of a confirmation that the pandemic has hit us very hard,” said Eric Gordon, chief executive of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. To help students recover, the school system has strengthened the summer school and added after-school tutoring.
“I’m not worried they can’t or won’t recover,” Gordon said. “I’m afraid the country won’t stay focused on catching up with children.”
The results show a reversal in progress on math scores, which had seen huge gains since the 1990s. Reading, on the other hand, had changed little over the decades, so even this year’s relatively small declines brought the averages back to where they were in 1992.
Most worrying, however, are the differences between students.
Racial inequalities appear to have increased during the pandemic, confirming what many had feared. In the fourth grade, black and Hispanic students saw a greater decline than white students, widening the gaps that had existed for decades.
Inequality was also reflected in a growing gap between better and less performing students. In math and reading, scores dropped most among the worst performing students, widening the gap between struggling students and the rest of their peers.
A mother who works from home sits next to her son who goes to school remotely in an arranged photo taken in Miami, Florida, US, as the pandemic raged in September 2020
Surveys conducted as part of this year’s test illustrate the gap.
As schools moved to distance learning, higher-performing students were much more likely to have reliable access to quiet rooms, computers and help from their teachers, the study found.
The results make it clear that schools need to address the ‘longstanding and systemic failings of our education system,’ said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of schools in Los Angeles and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the test.
“While the pandemic was a blow to schools and communities, we can’t use it as an excuse,” he said. “We must maintain high standards and expectations and help every child succeed.”
Other recent studies have found that students who studied online for longer periods experienced greater setbacks. But the NAEP results show no clear correlation.
Areas that quickly returned to the classroom still saw significant declines, and cities — which were more likely to remain remote — saw even milder declines than suburban districts, according to the results.
Los Angeles can claim one of the few bright spots in the results. The nation’s second-largest school district saw eighth grade reading scores increase by 9 points, the only significant increase in any district. For other counties, it was an equal feat as accomplished by Dallas and Hillsborough County in Florida.
Test critics warn against putting too much weight on exams like NAEP, but there’s no question that the skills it aims to measure are critical.
Students who take longer to master reading are more likely to drop out and end up in the criminal justice system, research shows. And the eighth grade is seen as a crucial time to develop skills for careers in math, science, and technology.
For Carr, the results raise new questions about what will happen to students who seem to be way behind in achieving those skills.
“We want our students worldwide to be prepared for STEM careers, science and technology and engineering,” she said. “This jeopardizes all of that. We need to do a reset. This is a very serious problem, and it won’t go away on its own.’