WASHINGTON (AP) — The COVID-19 pandemic has spared no state or region as it caused historic learning disabilities for American children, erased decades of academic progress and magnified racial inequalities, according to the results of a national test that took the sharpest view so far indicates the magnitude of the crisis.
Across the country, math scores saw their biggest drop ever. Reading scores dropped to 1992 levels. Nearly four out of ten eighth grade students did not understand basic math concepts. No state saw a notable improvement in their average test scores, with some simply treading water at best.
Those are the findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress — known as the “National Report Card” — which tested hundreds of thousands of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country this year. It marked the first time since 2019 that the test was administered and it is considered the first nationally representative study of the impact of the pandemic on learning.
“It’s a serious wake-up call for all of us,” Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the Department of Education, said in an interview. “When we experience a 1 or 2 point drop at NAEP, we are talking about a significant impact on a student’s performance. In math, we experienced an 8 point drop – historic for this rating.
Researchers usually think that a 10-point gain or drop equates to about a year of learning.
It’s no surprise that kids are lagging behind. The pandemic has turned every facet of life upside down and let millions learn from home for months or longer. The results released Monday reveal the depth of those setbacks and the magnitude of the challenge schools face as they help students catch up.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said it is a sign that schools need to redouble their efforts, using billions of dollars Congress gave 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. Scores before the pandemic came to a haltbut 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% earning scores considered “below base” — a boundary that measures, for example, whether students can find the third corner of a triangle if they get the other two. That’s worse than in 2019, when 31% 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 yet more 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 continue to focus 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.
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 shortcomings of our education system,” said Alberto Carvalho, chief inspector 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 cannot use it as an excuse,” he said. “We must remain committed to 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 stay remote for longer — 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 to be prepared worldwide for STEM careers, science and technology and engineering,” she said. “This puts everything at risk. We need to do a reset. This is a very serious problem and it will not go away on its own.”
AP education writer Bianca Vázquez Toness in Boston contributed to this report.
The Associated Press education team is supported by New York’s Carnegie Corporation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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