COVID setbacks for US students revealed by historic test scores
According to results of a national test that provides the sharpest look yet at the scale of the crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic spared no state or region as it caused historic academic setbacks for American children, erasing decades of academic progress and widening racial disparities.
Math scores, in particular, saw their largest decreases, ever. Scores in reading have fallen to 1992 levels. Nearly four in 10 eighth graders failed to grasp basic math concepts. Not a single state saw a notable improvement in their average test scores, with some simply treading water at best.
Those are the most recent findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also 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 given since 2019, and it’s seen as the first nationally representative study of the pandemic’s impact on education and learning.
This is a very serious decline according to the NAEP, who typically reports 1- or 2-point decline, which significantly impacts a student’s achievement.
How significant of an impact is this for US students?
In math alone, the NAEP experienced an 8-point decline, which is a historic drop for this assessment. To make this point system clear, researchers usually think of a 10-point gain or drop, as equivalent to roughly an entire year of learning.
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 the worst amongst eighth graders, with 38% earning scores deemed “below basic” – a cutoff that measures, for example, whether students can find the third angle of a triangle if they’re given the other two. That’s worse than in 2019, when 31% of eighth graders scored below that level.
It’s no surprise that children are behind. The pandemic upended every facet of life and left millions learning from home for months, in some cases even longer.
The results released on Monday reveal the depth of those setbacks, and the size of the challenge facing schools as they help students catch up.
Test scores declined in every region of the country, and at least one subject declined in every state.
Several major districts saw test scores fall by more than 10 points. Cleveland saw the largest single drop, falling 16 points in fourth-grade reading, along with a 15-point decline in fourth-grade math. Baltimore and Tennessee’s Shelby County also saw precipitous declines.
The NAEP test is typically given every two years and is taken between January and March, by a sample of students in every state. Along with 26 of the nation’s largest school districts, the scores had been stalling even before the pandemic, but the new results show decreases on a scale that the nation has never seen before.
The results show a reversal of progress on math scores, which had made big gains since the 1990s. Reading, by contrast, had changed little in recent decades, so even this year’s relatively small decreases put the averages back to where they were in 1992.
Most concerning, however, are the gaps between students. Confirming what many had feared, racial inequities appear to have widened during the pandemic. In fourth grade, Black and Hispanic students saw bigger decreases than white students, widening gaps that have persisted for decades.
What is being done to help?
Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona, said that it’s a sign that schools need to double down on their efforts, using billions of dollars that Congress gave schools to help students recover
Los Angeles can claim one of the few bright spots in the results. The nation’s second-largest school district in California, saw eighth-grade reading scores increase by 9 points, the only significant uptick in any district. For other districts, it was a feat just to hold even, as achieved by Dallas and Florida’s Hillsborough County.
How to keep kids in school – without more COVID setbacks?
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