Academic achievement in Massachusetts, historically the highest achieving state in the nation, fell so much during the pandemic that the state’s eighth graders now score below those in New Jersey in reading, and in math, an 11-point drop nearly ties Massachusetts with Utah. Meanwhile, students in the Department of Defense school system appeared not to miss a beat. Large cities – despite their poverty – were generally more resilient than the rest of their states, especially in middle school reading.
These were three of the many surprises seen in the test scores of roughly 450,000 fourth and eighth graders across the nation who took a national reading and math test between January and March of 2022. The test takers were especially selected to represent the diversity of the U.S. population and their scores demonstrate how American education has suffered during the pandemic since the last National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was administered in 2019.
Overall, the 2022 NAEP scores showed declines in both math and reading for both age groups, closely tracking other gloomy reports. The declines in math scores were the largest ever recorded since the U.S. Department of Education began tracking academic achievement across the nation in 1990. Even the much smaller declines in reading scores set reading achievement back to where it was 30 years ago. In a briefing with journalists ahead of the test score release on Oct. 24, officials at the Department of Education took pains to express how “troubling,” “stark,” “concerning,” and even “appalling” the slide in student achievement since 2019 has been.
But it was the detailed data that went beyond national averages that makes this latest report especially worth noting. The NAEP report separates results by state and lists the academic performance in 26 large cities that volunteer for extra testing. (Click on these links to see the scores in your state or city.) Some states and cities fared better than others. Georgia, Iowa and Alabama, for example, lost a lot less ground than Delaware, West Virginia and Oklahoma. But there were no easy explanations and no clear connections between policy decisions on remote learning and how much academic achievement suffered.
“There’s nothing in this data that says we can draw a straight line between the time spent and remote learning, in and of itself, and student achievement,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). “We have massive comprehensive declines everywhere, where in some cases, they were in remote learning longer or shorter than others. It’s just too complex to draw the straight line.”
Math achievement gaps widened in fourth grade because the strongest students suffered less than the weakest students. But in eighth grade, severe drops occurred at every achievement level.
A few places, such as Los Angeles, where students continued to learn remotely at the start of the 2020-21 school year, showed remarkable gains between 2019 and 2022, bucking the national trend. Eighth graders in Los Angeles posted a whopping nine point jump in reading while nationally, scores fell by three points. In California as a whole, eighth grade reading scores were unchanged from 2019.
By contrast, scores in Cleveland, already one of the lowest performing large cities in the country, fell considerably in both subjects. Cleveland’s fourth graders dropped 15 points in math and 16 points in reading while fourth grade scores in Ohio as a whole dropped only three points in each subject.
“Cleveland is one of those areas that had a perfect storm moving in the wrong direction,” said Carr. “The pandemic was still raging there, right before we went into the schools to collect data.”
New York offers another example of where the city outperformed the state, a more common phenomenon. Fourth grade math scores plunged nine points in New York City, where the pandemic death toll was high and many students continued to learn remotely throughout the 2020-21 school year. But fourth grade reading held steady as did both math and reading subjects in eighth grade. The picture was worse in the rest of New York State, where fourth grade math scores plunged 10 points, and fourth grade reading scores and eighth grade math scores each dipped six points. Only eighth grade reading scores held steady in the state.
Eighth grade reading scores dropped in only four of the 26 cities, but in 33 of the 50 states.
“The fact that cities were able to hold steady in the wake of all that we went through does strike me as resilient, as a bright spot,” said Carr, commending the “tremendous determination” of educators, schools and students amid chaotic times.
The steeper drop in math than in reading is well understood by educators. Math is a subject that students primarily learn in school. It’s easier for children to continue reading books at home, even without formal instruction, and make some progress independently. Still the reasons for many figures in this report remain a mystery that will require some digging by researchers and journalists.
Two other bright spots were the Department of Defense schools and Catholic schools. Department of Defense students held steady or improved in each subject and grade. The only instance where Catholic school achievement fell backwards was in eighth grade math. Many schools run by the Department of Defense continued to teach remotely in the fall of 2020, but Catholic schools generally were quicker to resume in-person instruction.
This year, the test included extra survey questions to understand how the pandemic affected learning. Higher performing students who scored in the top 25 percent were more likely to say they had access to a computer or a tablet all of the time and a quiet place to work some of the time during 2020-21. Higher performing eighth graders said they had real-time video lessons with their teacher every day or almost every day. Meanwhile, a majority of teachers didn’t feel “extremely” or “quite” confident that they could help students catch up.
The declines in test scores varied by state, rejiggering historical standings. (See adjacent charts of state score declines in math.) To be sure, these relative standings aren’t important except for bragging rights. But Massachusetts’ sharp fall, which may prove to be temporary, is illustrative of how even the strongest, wealthiest educational systems in our country were upended by the pandemic.
State by state changes in math performance from 2019 to 2022. Students in even the top performing states lost ground in math. Fourth and eighth graders at Department of Defense schools, abbreviated DD, are now performing far above the rest of the nation.
What matters, of course, is whether children are learning to read, analyze, multiply and solve problems. According to proficiency benchmarks on the 2022 NAEP test, a quarter of fourth graders and 38 percent of eight graders were deemed to be performing “below basic” in math. That’s a giant difference from before the pandemic; 32 percent more fourth graders and 23 percent more eighth graders lack these rudimentary grade-level skills than in 2019.
In a normal year, just a three-point swing in NAEP scores is considered quite large. The fact that eighth graders in more than 24 states posted an eight point or larger drop in math scores is deeply concerning. In only one state – Utah — did eighth graders hold steady. Even the strongest students in the nation at the 90th percentile lost eight points on their math tests, on average. These eighth graders are now in ninth grade and lack a strong math foundation.
“Eighth grade is that gateway to more advanced mathematical course taking,” said NCES’s Carr. “They’re missing these important skills that will prepare them for STEM level careers, in math and science and technology.”
What everyone wants now is to help students catch up. Schools are required to spend at least 20 percent of their federal rescue funds on academic recovery. Some are spending more and, so far, $31 billion is expected to be spent on tutoring, after-school and summer school programs, said Roberto Rodríguez, assistant secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education. Rodríguez said that more than half of U.S. schools are offering intensive “high dosage” tutoring to help students catch up and three quarters of schools have created summer learning and enrichment programs.
But the Department didn’t have any clear advice on which interventions are proving to be most effective. An anticipated report by a consortium of researchers has been delayed because of data problems. School districts are able to say which interventions they’re trying but it’s proving more difficult to identify exactly which students are actually getting the extra support so that those students’ scores can be tracked.
Math scores declines in 26 large urban school districts between 2019 and 2022
This story about NAEP scores was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.