American schoolchildren’s academic progress fell back decades during COVID-19 pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic spared no state or region, causing historic learning setbacks for America’s children, erasing decades of academic progress and widening racial disparities, according to results from a national test that provides the most insight accurate so far on the scale of the crisis.

Across the country, math scores experienced the biggest declines in their history. Reading scores fell to 1992 levels. Nearly four in 10 eighth graders failed to grasp basic math concepts. Not a single state saw a noticeable improvement in their average test scores, and some were just buoyant at best.

Those are the findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “nation’s report card,” which tested hundreds of thousands of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country this year. It was the first time the test had been conducted since 2019, and is considered the first nationally representative study of the impact of the pandemic on learning.

“This is a serious wake-up call for all of us,” Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the Department of Education, said in an interview. “In NAEP, when we experience a decrease of 1 or 2 points, we speak of a significant impact on a student’s performance. In math, we experienced an 8-point drop, which is historic for this assessment.”

Researchers typically think of a 10-point gain or loss as equivalent to about a year of learning.

No wonder the kids are behind. The pandemic has upended every facet of life, leaving millions of people learning from home for months or longer. The results released Monday reveal the depth of those setbacks and the size of the challenge schools face in helping students catch up.

The Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, said that it is a sign that schools must redouble their efforts, using billions of dollars Congress gave to schools to help students get back on their feet.

“Let me be very clear: these results are not acceptable,” Cardona said.

The NAEP test is usually done every two years. It was taken between January and March by a sample of students in every state, along with 26 of the largest school districts in the country. scores had stalled even before the pandemicbut the new results show declines on a scale never seen before.

In both math and reading, students scored lower than those tested in 2019. But while reading scores dipped, math scores plummeted by the largest margins in the history of the NAEP test, which began in 1969. .

Math scores were worse among eighth graders, with 38% scoring “below basic,” a threshold that measures, for example, whether students can find the third angle of a triangle given the other two. That’s worse than 2019, when 31% of eighth graders scored below that level.

No part of the country was exempt. Every region saw test scores drop, and every state saw declines in at least one subject.

Several major districts saw test scores drop by more than 10 points. Cleveland saw the largest individual drop, dropping 16 points in fourth-grade reading, along with a 15-point decline in fourth-grade math. Shelby County of Baltimore and Tennessee also saw steep declines.

“This is further confirmation that the pandemic hit us very hard,” said Eric Gordon, executive director of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. To help students catch up, the school system has beefed up summer school and added after-school tutoring.

“I’m not worried if they can’t or won’t recover,” Gordon said. “I am concerned that the country is not staying focused on getting kids up to speed.”

The results show a reversal of progress in math scores, which had made great strides since the 1990s. Reading, by contrast, has changed little in recent decades, so even the relatively small declines this year they returned the averages to where they were in 1992.

However, what is most worrying are the differences between the students.

Confirming what many feared, racial disparities appear to have widened during the pandemic. In fourth grade, African American and Hispanic students saw larger declines than white students, widening gaps that have persisted for decades.

Inequalities were also reflected in a widening gap between the highest and lowest achieving students. In math and reading, scores fell more steeply among the lowest-achieving students, creating a widening gulf between struggling students and the rest of their peers.

Surveys conducted as part of this year’s test illustrate the divide.

When schools switched to remote learning, higher-achieving students were much more likely to have reliable access to quiet spaces, computers and help from their teachers, the survey found.

The results make it clear that schools must address “longstanding and systemic shortcomings in our education system,” said Alberto Carvalho, Los Angeles superintendent of schools and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the proof.

“While the pandemic was a blow to schools and communities, we cannot use it as an excuse,” he said. “We have to stay committed to high standards and expectations and help every child succeed.”

Other recent studies have found that students who spent more time learning online suffered more setbacks. But the NAEP results don’t show a clear connection. Areas that quickly returned to classrooms still saw significant declines, and cities, which were more likely to remain remote longer, actually saw smaller declines than suburban districts, according to the results.

Los Angeles can claim one of the few bright spots in the results. The second-largest school district in the country saw a 9-point increase in eighth-grade reading scores, the only significant increase in any district. For other districts, it was a feat to simply keep up, as Dallas and Hillsborough County in Florida did.

Critics of the tests warn against overemphasizing tests like the NAEP, but there’s no question that the skills it purports to measure are critical. Students who take longer to master reading are more likely to drop out of school and end up in the criminal justice system, research has found. And eighth grade is considered a critical 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 appear to be far behind in achieving those skills.

“Us we want our students to be prepared globally for STEM, science and technology, and engineering careers,” he said. “This puts all of that at risk. We have to do a reset. This is a very serious problem, and it’s not going to go away on its own.”



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