WASHINGTON (AP) — The COVID-19 pandemic has caused historic learning setbacks for American children, sparing no state or region as it erases decades of academic progress and widens racial disparities, findings show. of a national test that provides the sharpest look yet at the scale of the crisis.
Across the country, math scores have seen their biggest drops on record. Reading scores fell to 1992 levels. Nearly four in 10 eighth graders failed to grasp basic math concepts. Not a single state has seen a noticeable improvement in its average test scores, with some simply treading water.
These are the findings of the National Assessment of Education Progress – known as the “National Report Card” – which this year tested hundreds of thousands of fourth and eighth graders across the country. It was the first time the test had been administered since 2019, and it 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, an arm of the Department for Education, said in an interview. “In NAEP, when we experience a drop of 1 or 2 points, we talk about it as a significant impact on a student’s achievement. In mathematics, we experienced a drop of 8 points, historic for this assessment.
Researchers generally think that a 10-point gain or drop is equivalent to about a year of learning.
It is not surprising that the children are late. The pandemic has disrupted daily life and let millions learn at home for months or more. Findings released on Monday reveal the depth of these setbacks and the scale of the challenge schools face when helping students catch up.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said it’s a sign schools need to redouble their efforts, using billions of dollars Congress has given to schools to help students recover.
“Let me be very clear: these results are not acceptable,” Cardona said.
The NAEP test is usually administered every two years. It was taken between January and March by a sample of students from every state, as well as 26 of the nation’s largest school districts. Sheet music was at a standstill even before the pandemicbut the new results show decreases on a scale never seen before.
In math and reading, students scored lower than those tested in 2019. But while reading scores fell, math scores fell by the largest margins in the history of the NAEP program, which began in 1969.
Math scores were the worst among eighth-graders, with 38% of scores deemed “below baseline” – a threshold that measures, for example, whether students can find the third angle of a triangle if they receive the other two. This is worse than in 2019, when 31% of eighth graders scored below this level.
No part of the country was spared. Every region saw its test scores drop, and every state saw a drop in at least one subject.
Several large districts have seen their test scores drop by more than 10 points. Cleveland saw the biggest drop, a 16-point drop in fourth-grade reading, as well as a 15-point drop in fourth-grade math. Baltimore and Shelby County in Tennessee have also seen precipitous declines.
“It’s further confirmation that the pandemic has hit us very hard,” said Eric Gordon, superintendent of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. To help students recover, the school system has bolstered summer classes and added after-school tutoring.
“I’m not afraid they can’t or won’t recover,” Gordon said. “I fear the country is not staying focused on catching up with the kids.”
The results show a reversal of progress on math scores, which had made big gains since the 1990s. Reading, on the other hand, had changed little in recent decades, so even the relatively small declines this year bring the averages back to their 1992 level.
Of most concern, however, are the gaps between students.
Confirming what many feared, racial inequalities seem to have widened. In fourth grade, black and Hispanic students saw bigger declines than white students, driving gaps that have persisted for decades.
Inequalities were also reflected in a growing gap between top and bottom performers. In math and reading, scores fell the most among the lowest-performing students, creating a widening gap between struggling students and the rest of their peers.
The surveys conducted as part of this year’s test illustrate the gap. When schools moved to remote learning, top-performing students were much more likely to have reliable access to quiet spaces, computers and help from their teachers, the survey found.
The findings make it clear that schools need to address “persistent and systemic deficiencies in our education system,” said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Los Angeles schools and a member of the National Assessment Administration Board, which sets policy in the school. test.
Many parents may not understand how academically behind their children are. A spring survey by the national nonprofit Learning Heroes found that the majority of parents believed their children were performing at or above their grade level in math and reading.
“There is a myth that parents just don’t want to know about. That the country just wants to get back to normal,” said Sonja Santelises, executive director of Baltimore City Public Schools. “But the parents are very worried.”
Some parents criticize schools for not clearly communicating learning gaps. In Nashville, a parent advocacy group is pushing the school system to share clearer information about student progress and create personal plans to help students catch up.
“Every student has the right to learn to read, but we haven’t achieved that,” said Sonya Thomas, a mother who is the executive director of Nashville PROPEL. “It creates social emotional issues. This creates labor issues. This creates life or death issues.
Other recent studies have shown that students who spend longer periods of time learning online experience greater setbacks. But the NAEP results show no clear link. Areas that returned to class quickly still saw steep declines, and cities — which were more likely to stay away longer — actually saw milder declines than suburban neighborhoods.
Los Angeles can claim one of the few bright spots. The nation’s second-largest school district saw eighth-grade reading scores rise 9 points, the only significant increase across all districts. For other districts, it was a feat to hold even, as Dallas and Hillsborough County in Florida achieved.
Critics of the tests warn against overemphasis on standardized exams, but there’s no doubt that the skills they aim to measure are critical. Students who take longer to master reading are more likely to drop out and end up in the criminal justice system, research shows, and eighth grade is seen as a pivotal time to develop skills for careers in reading. mathematics and science.
For Carr, the results raise new questions about what will happen to students who seem to be far behind in acquiring these skills.
“We want our students to be prepared globally for STEM careers, science and technology and engineering,” she said. “It puts all of that at risk. We need to do a reset. This is a very serious problem, and it is not going to go away on its own. »
AP Education writer Bianca Vázquez Toness in Boston contributed to this report.
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.