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Here’s what pandemic did to the learning standards of America’s children


Math test results nationwide experienced their biggest drops ever. Scores in reading fell to 1992 levels. Nearly four out of ten eighth graders struggled to understand fundamental math ideas. No state’s average test results showed a discernible improvement, and other states hardly moved from where they were.

These are the results of this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also referred to as the “nation’s report card,” which assessed tens of thousands of fourth and eighth grade students nationwide. The test was administered for the first time since 2019 and is regarded as the first nationally representative investigation of the pandemic’s effects on education.

Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the Education Department, said in an interview, “It is a serious wakeup call for us all. In NAEP, when we experience a 1- or 2-point decline, we’re talking about it as a significant impact on a student’s achievement. In math, we experienced an 8-point decline — historic for this assessment.”

Typically, researchers consider a 10-point increase or decrease to be equivalent to around one year of learning.

It’s hardly shocking that kids are falling behind. Every aspect of life was altered by the pandemic, which forced millions of people to learn at home for several months or longer. The results, which were made public on Monday, show how severe those deficits were and how difficult it will be for schools to help pupils catch up.

Miguel Cardona, the secretary of education, said it’s a reminder that schools must step up their efforts and use the billions of funds Congress has given them to aid in students’ recovery.

“Let me be very clear: these results are not acceptable,” Cardona said.

Normally, the NAEP test is administered every two years. It was completed between January and March by a representative sample of students from all 50 states and 26 of the largest school districts in the country. Even before the epidemic, scores had been stagnating, but the most recent findings reveal drops on a scale that hasn’t been seen before.

Students’ arithmetic and reading test results were lower than those from 2019. However, while reading scores fell, math scores fell by the biggest margins ever recorded in the NAEP test’s history, which started in 1969.

Math scores were worst among 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 2019, when 31% of eighth graders scored below that level.

No region in the nation was exempt. Test results decreased in every area and state in at least one subject.

Test results decreased by more than 10 points in some important areas. With a 16 point reduction in fourth grade reading and a 15 point drop in fourth grade arithmetic, Cleveland experienced the biggest single dip. Baltimore and Shelby County, Tennessee, also experienced sharp reductions.

“This is more confirmation that the pandemic hit us really hard,” said Eric Gordon, chief executive for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. To help students recover, the school system has beefed up summer school and added after-school tutoring.

Gordon said “I am not concerned that they can’t or won’t recover. I’m concerned that the country won’t stay focused on getting kids caught up.”

The outcomes reveal a reversal of math score progress, which had achieved significant gains since the 1990s. Reading, in comparison, had undergone minimal change in recent years, so even this year’s modest drops brought the averages back to their 1992 levels.

The gaps between students, though, are the most worrying.

Racial disparities appear to have grown during the pandemic, confirming what many had feared. Black and Hispanic kids experienced worse declines in fourth grade than white pupils, increasing inequities that have persisted for decades.

A widening achievement gap between high- and low-achieving kids was another indicator of inequities. The lowest performing kids had the biggest drops in math and reading scores, expanding the achievement gap between them and their peers.

Surveys conducted for this year’s test show the gap.

Higher performing students were much more likely to have dependable access to quiet areas, computers, and help from their teachers when schools made the switch to remote learning, the poll showed.

The results make clear that schools must address the “long-standing and systemic shortcomings of our education system,” said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Los Angeles schools and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets the policies for the test.

“While the pandemic was a blow to schools and communities, we cannot use it as an excuse,” he said. “We have to stay committed to high standards and expectations and help every child succeed.”

According to other recent studies, students who studied online for longer periods of time experienced more difficulties. But there is no apparent relationship between the NAEP outcomes. According to the findings, cities, which were more likely to remain far away for longer, suffered lower drops than suburban districts, but areas that swiftly returned to the classroom nevertheless experienced large declines.

Los Angeles can claim one of the few bright spots in the results. The nation’s second-largest school district 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.

Exams like NAEP have their detractors, but there’s no denying that the competencies they seek to assess are crucial. According to statistics, students who struggle with reading are more likely to leave school and wind up in the criminal justice system. And eighth grade is thought to be a crucial year for acquiring abilities for jobs in math, science, and technology.

Carr’s fresh concerns about what will happen to children who seem to be significantly behind in mastering those skills are sparked by the results.

“We want our students to be prepared globally for STEM careers, science and technology and engineering. This puts all of that at risk. We have to do a reset. This is a very serious issue, and it’s not going to go away on its own,” she said.

(With inputs from AP)

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