American student test scores plunged by historic levels during the coronavirus pandemic, prompting soul-searching among education figures to chart a future path for the country’s schools.
New results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” revealed steep declines in math and reading scores among U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders that President Joe Biden’s top schools official described as unacceptable.
Education experts anticipated grim news from the nationally-representative exam, which students took earlier this year for the first time since Covid-19 upended their classes and everyday lives. Separate federal testing data released last month confirmed the worries of educators and politicians.
But the scale of the latest test score drops between 2019 and this year — particularly in math for children who are now high school freshmen — and a longer trend of stagnating performance prompted deep concern among officials who issued renewed calls to bring students back up to speed.
“The results in today’s Nation’s Report Card are appalling and unacceptable,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told reporters. “This is a moment of truth for education. How we respond to this will determine not only our recovery, but our nation’s standing in the world.”
Statistics released Monday defy easy explanations and standard political partisanship. Declines afflicted states and major cities whether they were led by Republicans who pushed to quickly reopen schools amid the pandemic or Democrats who urged a more cautious return to normal classes. Federal testing officials insist the results reveal no singular correlation between scores and remote or in-person learning.
“There are no winners. There are no losers. There are losses among all states and all grades,” said former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, in an interview.
“There was really hardly any difference between a poor, economically deprived rural community and a very sophisticated ZIP code,” Perdue said of the country’s math scores. “The pandemic hit us all.”
The nation’s average math score for fourth-graders fell by five points since 2019 (from 241 to 236, out of a possible 500). Eighth-graders’ national average math score dropped by eight points (from 282 to 274, out of a possible 500). Average reading scores for both grades fell, less dramatically, by three points. Scores in a group of large urban school districts fell by similar margins.
California’s statewide average eighth-grade math score dropped by six points since 2019. Florida and Illinois dropped by seven points. Average math scores for older students dropped by 11 and six points, respectively, in New Jersey and New York.
“These mathematics results are historic,” National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner Peggy Carr told reporters. “They are the largest declines in mathematics we have observed in the entire history of this assessment.”
Education experts describe math scores as most responsive to teaching and classroom learning, partly because families and community members are more comfortable helping students read outside of school hours.
But Carr said it will take more research to learn the precise extent of remote schooling and other factors on the scores.
“We cannot find anything in this data that says that the results we are looking at can be solely, primarily attributable to differences in how long students stayed in remote learning,” Carr said. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t have an effect.”
Cardona will visit a Maryland elementary school Monday to promote the use of federal stimulus dollars to help students recover. The department will also issue renewed suggestions for how educators and local leaders can use the money to address lost learning.
Fresh debates over the structure and progress of American schooling are sure to follow.
“This is not the result simply of a horrible three years for students, this is a result of a realized generational decline,” Perdue said. “If people get this data, look at it, and think ‘It’s all because of the pandemic,’ then that could very well be a nearly fatal mistake for decision-making.”
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