Test scores show historic Covid backlash for children across US

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Covid-19 pandemic has left America’s children with historic learning setbacks that have widened decades of educational progress and racial disparities, leaving no state or region unscathed, according to the results of a national survey that gives an even sharper look. The extent of the crisis.

Across the country, math scores are at an all-time low. Reading scores fell to 1992 levels. Nearly four out of 10 eighth-graders fail to understand basic math concepts. Not a single state saw a significant improvement in their average test scores, and some simply tread water.

Those are the findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the so-called “nation’s report card” — that tested hundreds of thousands of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country this year. The test was conducted for the first time since 2019, and is believed to be the first nationally representative study of the pandemic’s impact on learning.

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

Researchers typically think of a 10-point gain or drop as roughly equivalent to a year of learning.

No wonder kids are behind. The pandemic has upended daily life and forced millions to learn from home months or longer. The results released Monday help students grasp the depth of those setbacks and the scale of the challenge facing schools.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said it’s a sign schools need to redouble their efforts, using billions of dollars Congress has given schools to help students recover..

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

NAEP testing is usually given every two years. It was 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 were stopped before the pandemicBut the new results show an unprecedented decline.

In both math and reading, students scored lower than when tested in 2019. But as reading scores fell, math scores fell by the largest drop in the history of the NAEP program, which began in 1969.

Math scores were worse among eighth-graders, with 38% earning scores considered “below baseline” — a cutoff that measures, for example, whether students can find the third angle of a triangle given the other two. That’s worse than in 2019, when 31% of eighth-graders scored below that level.

No part of the country is exempted. Every region saw test scores decline, and every state saw declines in at least one subject.

Test scores fell by more than 10 points in several key districts. Cleveland saw a 16-point drop in fourth-grade reading and a 15-point drop in fourth-grade math. Baltimore and Tennessee’s Shelby County also saw sharp declines.

“This confirms that the pandemic has hit us very hard,” said Eric Gordon, chief executive of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. To help students recover, the school system has expanded summer school and added after-school tutoring.

“I’m not worried that they can’t or won’t recover,” Gordon said. “I worry that the country will not focus on catching children.”

The results showed a reversal of progress in math scores that had made large gains since the 1990s. By contrast, readings have changed little in recent decades, so even relatively small decreases this year have brought the average back to where it was in 1992.

However, the gaps between students are more worrisome.

Confirming what many feared, racial disparities have widened. By fourth grade, black and Hispanic students saw larger declines than white students, widening gaps that had persisted for decades.

The disparities are also reflected in the growing gap between high and low performing students. In math and reading, scores fell most sharply among the lowest-performing students, creating a widening gap between struggling students and their peers.

Studies done as part of this year’s trial illustrate the divide. The survey found that when schools transitioned to distance learning, high-performing students were more likely to have reliable access to quiet spaces, computers and help from their teachers.

The results make it clear that schools need to address “chronic and systemic deficiencies in our education system,” said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Los Angeles schools and a member of the National Assessment Steering Committee, which sets policy for testing.

Many parents may not understand how far behind their children are in education. In a spring survey by the national nonprofit Learning Heroes, most parents believe their children are performing at or above their standards in math and reading.

“There’s a myth that parents don’t want to know. The country wants to get back to normal,” said Sonja Santelices, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. “But parents are very concerned.”

Some parents criticize schools for not clearly communicating learning gaps. In Nashville, a parent advocacy group is pushing the school system to share clear information about student progress — and create individualized programs to help students catch up.

“Every student has the right to be taught to read, but we’re failing,” said Sonia Thomas, executive director of Nashville PROPEL. “It creates socio-emotional problems. It creates labor problems. It creates life and death problems.

Other recent studies have found that students who spent more time learning online suffered more setbacks. But NAEP results show no clear correlation. Areas that quickly returned to the classroom saw even more significant declines, and cities — which are far more likely to stay longer — actually saw smaller declines than suburban counties.

Los Angeles can claim one of the few brightest spots. Eighth-grade reading scores in the nation’s second-largest school district rose 9 points, the only significant improvement of any district. For other counties, equal treatment is a feat, as accomplished by Dallas and Hillsborough County, Florida.

Testing critics caution against placing too much stock in standardized tests, but there is no doubt that the skills it measures are important. Students who take longer to master coursework are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system, research has found, and eighth grade is considered an important time to develop math and science skills for life.

For Carr, the results raise new questions about what happens to students who seem to be far behind in achieving those skills.

“We want our students to be prepared For STEM careers, science and technology and engineering worldwide,” he said. “It puts everything at risk. We have to reset. This is a very serious problem and it’s not going to go away on its own.

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AP education writer Bianca Vasquez Tones in Boston contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press Education Group receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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