American students’ test scores plunge to lowest levels in decades

Report shows the serious impact of the pandemic

The just-released report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been making waves in mainstream media and across the nation. Based on test results of 9-year-old fourth graders that were given from January to March in 2020 and in 2022, the test scores were alarming. Math scores dropped seven points, which is the first ever decline, and reading scores dropped five points, which is the largest drop in 30 years.

“These results are sobering,” said Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the tests. “It’s clear that covid-19 shocked American education and stunted the academic growth of this age group.”

As reported in The Washington Post by Donna St. George, this historic falloff “left little doubt about the pandemic’s toll. The average math score of 234 this year was comparable to the average score recorded in 1999, and the reading score of 215 was similar to the 2004 score. How long it might take to catch up is unclear and not likely to be understood until further test results are analyzed.”

According to other studies, there has also been an increase in classroom disruption, school violence, absenteeism, cyberbullying, teacher and staff vacancies, and an increase in students seeking mental health services.

“While we see declines at all performance levels, the growing gap between students at the top and those at the bottom is an important but overlooked trend,” said Martin West, a member of the governing board that sets policy for NAEP and academic dean at Harvard Graduate School of Education, in a statement. “These results show that this gap widened further during the pandemic.”

“Supporting the academic recovery of lower-performing students should be a top priority for educators and policymakers nationwide,” West said.

St. George reports that “seventy percent of the 9-year-olds tested this year recalled learning remotely at some point during the pandemic. More than 80 percent of higher-performing students reported always having access to a laptop, a desktop computer or a tablet. Among lower-performing students, about 60 percent had constant access.”

The NAEP testing is done at public and private schools chosen randomly from across the country. This year’s testing included 14,800 students from 410 schools. There are three 15-minute blocks of questions, mostly multiple-choice, plus a questionnaire.

Frequent, regular tutoring a proven strategy to help

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona stated that the NAEP results cast the experiences of the last two years in “a stark light” but should remind people to press ahead with efforts to accelerate student learning, support student mental health needs and invest in educators. States should steer federal relief funds “even more effectively and expeditiously” to proven strategies including “high-dosage” tutoring and after-school and summer programs, Cardona said.

NAEP tests are a congressionally authorized project, sponsored by the Department of Education and administered through its statistical arm, the NCES.

Read St. George’s full reporting on this at The Washington Post, here.