A new report by the U. S. Department of Education – its first such comparison of academic achievement documented from before the coronavirus pandemic to now – reveals an unprecedented drop in grade scores across math and reading not seen in more than half a century.
“These are some of the largest declines we have observed in a single assessment cycle in 50 years,” said Daniel McGrath, the acting associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the Education Department’s research arm. “Students in 2022 are performing at a level last seen two decades ago.”
Such declines in both disciplines should come as no surprise given the widely documented setbacks due to the significant amount of interrupted learning students have endured through the years since the coronavirus pandemic first sidelined the world. And the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the only report with a nationally representative sample of students – both confirms and highlights how impactful school disruptions have been, particularly for students already struggling the most.
“During the pandemic, NCES continued and enhanced other data collections on education challenges, and they paint a sobering picture,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr. “School shootings, violence, and classroom disruptions are up, as are teacher and staff vacancies, absenteeism, cyberbullying, and students’ use of mental health services. This information provides some important context for the results we're seeing from the long-term trend assessment.”
Since 2020, average math scores have declined 7 points, with the lowest performing students posting a 12-point decline versus a 3-point drop from the highest-achieving students. Likewise, average reading scores, specifically with 9-year-olds students has declined 5 points from 2020 to 2022, with the lowest-performing students showing 10-point declines when compared to students who achieve the highest, posting a 2-point decline.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona agreed to the report’s findings, saying the results “bring a stark light” to what school leaders, teachers and families have experienced over the last two years.
“The pandemic had a significant impact on our children’s progress and academic well-being,” he said. “This data should remind everyone that we cannot let up in our efforts to accelerate student learning, support their mental health needs, and invest in our educators who are serving students in classrooms every day.”
Notably, math and reading scores also fell for students in every geographic region – no matter whether schools were faster to reopen for in-person instruction – and every type of school district, be it urban, rural or suburban.
“The results confirm our fears that students have not made adequate academic progress,” said former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, chairperson of the National Assessment Governing Board. “Fewer 9-year-olds now have the basic reading and math skills they need. This puts their futures – and our nation’s – at great risk and should spur us all to action. We can’t keep blaming COVID. We need to accelerate their learning.”
Later this year, NCES will release a more comprehensive look at student achievement when it releases the so-called Nation’s Report Card, which showcases math and reading results for students in grades four and eight from across the country and in 26 urban school districts.