WASHINGTON (AP) – The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a historic learning setback for U.S. children, with no state or territory spared as it erased decades of Academic advancement and widening racial disparities. the scale of the crisis.
Nationwide, math scores saw their biggest-ever drop. Reading scores fell to 1992 levels. Nearly four in 10 eighth graders fail to grasp basic math concepts. No state has seen a significant improvement in average test scores, and some are treading water at best.
These are the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress — known as the “National Report Card” — which this year tested hundreds of thousands of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country. This is the first time the test has been conducted since 2019, and it is seen as the first nationally representative study of the pandemic’s impact on learning.
“This is a serious wake-up call for all of us,” Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics under the Department of Education, said in an interview. “In the NAEP, when we experience a 1 or 2 point drop, we see it as a significant impact on student achievement. In maths, we experience an 8-point drop—historical for this assessment sexual.”
Researchers generally consider a 10-point increase or decrease to be equivalent to about a year of study time.
It’s no surprise that the kids are lagging behind.Pandemic upends everyday life, leaving millions to learn from home months or more. The results, released Monday, reveal the depth of those setbacks and the scale of the challenges schools face in helping students catch up.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said it showed schools needed to redouble their efforts to use the billions of dollars Congress gave to schools to help students recover.
“Let me be very clear: These results are unacceptable,” Cardona said.
NAEP tests are usually taken every two years. It was conducted between January and March with a sample of students in each state and the nation’s largest 26 school districts.Scores stagnated even before the pandemicbut the new results show a decline on an unprecedented scale.
Students scored lower than their 2019 test scores in both math and reading. But while reading scores declined, math scores fell by the most in the history of the NAEP program, which began in 1969.
Eighth graders had the worst math scores, with 38 percent of students rated as “below basic” — for example, if a student could find the third angle of a triangle if they got two more angles. That’s worse than in 2019, when 31 percent of eighth graders scored below that level.
There are no regions in the country that are exempt. Test scores fell in every region and in at least one subject in every state.
Test scores fell by more than 10 points in several major regions. Cleveland had the largest single drop, with a 16-point drop in fourth-grade reading and a 15-point drop in fourth-grade math. Baltimore and Shelby County, Tennessee, also saw sharp declines.
“This is further confirmation that the pandemic has hit us really hard,” said Eric Gordon, chief executive of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. To help students recover, the school system has stepped up summer schools and added after-school tutoring.
“I’m not worried that they can’t or won’t recover,” Gordon said. “I’m worried the country won’t continue to focus on getting kids to catch up.”
The results show a reversal in math performance, which has made huge strides since the 1990s. In contrast, readings have barely budged in recent decades, so even this year’s relatively small decline brings the average back to 1992 levels.
Most worrying, however, is the disparity between students.
Affirming what many fear is that racial inequality appears to have widened. In fourth grade, black and Hispanic students declined more than white students, widening a gap that has persisted for decades.
Inequality is also reflected in the growing gap between higher- and lower-achieving students. The worst-performing students saw the biggest declines in math and reading, creating a growing divide between students with learning difficulties and the rest of their peers.
Surveys conducted as part of this year’s testing illustrate the divide. The survey found that when schools moved to distance learning, higher-performing students were more likely to use quiet spaces, computers and teacher help reliably.
The results make it clear that schools must address “long-standing systemic flaws in our education system,” said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Los Angeles schools and a member of the National Assessment Governing Council that sets testing policy.
Many parents may not understand how far behind their children are academically. A spring survey by the national nonprofit Learning Heroes found that most parents believe their children are performing at or above their grade level in math and reading.
“There’s a myth that parents don’t want to know. This country just wants to get back to normal,” said Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. “But parents are worried.”
Some parents have accused schools of not communicating learning gaps clearly. In Nashville, a parent advocacy group is pushing the school system to share clearer information about student progress and develop individual plans to help students catch up.
“Every student has the right to learn to read, and we’re not doing that,” said Sonia Thomas, mother of Nashville PROPEL executive director. “It creates socio-emotional issues. It creates workforce issues. It creates life and death issues.”
Other recent research has found that students who study online for longer experience greater frustration. But the NAEP results showed no clear link. Areas with rapid returns to classrooms still saw significant declines, while cities — more likely to remain remote for longer — actually saw smaller declines than suburbs.
Los Angeles is arguably one of the few bright spots. Eighth-grade reading scores rose 9 points in the nation’s second-largest district, the only school district to see a significant increase. For other regions, keeping the balance is a feat, as has been achieved in Dallas and Hillsborough County, Florida.
Test critics caution against putting too much stock on standardized tests, but there’s no question that the skills it’s designed to measure are critical. The study found that students who took longer to master reading were more likely to drop out of school and end up in the criminal justice system, with eighth grade seen as a critical period for developing math and science career skills.
For Carr, the results raise new questions about what happens to students who seem to be lagging far behind in acquiring these skills.
“We want our students to be prepared STEM careers, science technology and engineering worldwide,” she said. “This puts all of these at risk. We have to reset. This is a very serious problem that won’t go away on its own. “
Associated Press education writer Bianca Vázquez Toness in Boston contributed to this report.
The AP Education team is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Associated Press is solely responsible for all content.