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Largest test score drops in 50 years reported

Nation’s Report Card tests show significant learning loss


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Largest test score drops in 50 years reported

Last week the National Center for Education Statistics released test scores showing the biggest drops in national average scores in math and reading in the last 50 years.

“It’s clear that COVID-19 shocked American education and stunted the academic growth of this age group of students,” NCES commissioner Peggy Carr told reporters. “We don’t make this statement lightly.”

The test scores released Thursday are the first national, data-based glimpse into just how much the pandemic affected student learning.

With little warning, teachers in spring 2020 moved everything from kindergarten reading skills to senior math on to screens. They often struggled to keep students engaged while surrounded by distracting pets or younger siblings. Students had difficulty focusing on a screen for hours a day, and some refused to turn on their cameras or even log on for class. Other households experienced spotty internet connectivity if they had it at all.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend test scores show a five-point drop in reading scores and a seven-point drop in math scores among 9-year-olds since early 2020. This year’s scores show the steepest decline in reading since 1990 and the first decline of any amount in math since the test was first administered in 1971.

In math, white students saw a five-point drop, while scores dropped by eight points among Hispanic students and 13 points among African Americans. In reading, scores for students in all three groups fell by six points.

Scores among top students only fell by two points in reading and three points in math, while scores for the lowest-performing students dropped by a shocking 10 points in reading and 12 points in math. No group saw an increase in scores.

Over half of students did not meet the median proficiency level in math, which NAEP defines as the ability to solve word problems that call for addition and subtraction and make comparisons after reading graphs and charts. In reading, 75 percent of students did not reach the median proficiency level at which they should be able to find specific information in longer written sections, as well as recognize main ideas from excerpts in literature, science, and social studies.

The National Center for Education Statistics offers two NAEP tests, commonly referred to as the nation’s report card: the main NAEP and the long-term trend assessment. The main NAEP is administered every two years to a sample of fourth, eighth, and 12th grade students in multiple subjects. This test is modified to reflect updated learning standards about every 10 years. Private schools may participate but are not required.

The long-term trend test is administered every four years to a sample of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students in math and reading. This test has remained essentially the same since it was first administered in the early 1970s, giving analysts and educators an idea of how student learning compares to previous years. The National Center for Education Statistics administered the test early this year to gauge the effects of the pandemic on the nation’s students.

Both tests are designed to report on the general academic level of U.S. students, and the tests do not offer consequences or even specific results for students, teachers, or individual schools.

Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said while this data is important, it is not enough to answer why students experienced this drop. When NAEP releases data from its main NAEP test later this year, it will be available by state and for about two dozen larger districts. With that data, Petrilli said educators will have a better understanding of what specific factors caused these big drops. However, he added that these sharp declines point to difficulties with remote learning in general: “There was a pandemic, and a whole bunch of kids stopped going to school, at least in person. And that clearly had a dramatic impact on their learning.”

During the pandemic, students in low-income families were more likely to struggle with attendance and less likely to have dependable Wi-Fi or computer access during remote learning. About 20 percent of students attended school in districts that utilized remote learning for most of the 2020-2021 year. Analysts said in May that in some lower-income schools, students experienced a 22-week loss of instruction due to poor remote learning setups.

After the NAEP results came out, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said states need to use all available federal funding to help students catch up. Data tracker Burbio reported last week that 55.8 percent of school districts have spent less than 30 percent of their funding.

Petrilli said schools may need to consider more drastic measures, such as adding on an entire grade of school for this generation of students: “Those are the kinds of outside-the-box ideas we need to think about. We’ve never been through anything like this before, and we can’t respond with business as usual.”


Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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