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After testing hundreds of thousands of fourth and eighth graders across the US, the “nation’s report card” from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has found a steady and universal decline in education scores. “It is a serious wakeup call for us all,” Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the Education Department, said recently in an interview.
It was the first time the test had been given since 2019, and it’s seen as the first nationally representative study of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on learning.
“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,” explains Carr.
The NAEP test is typically 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. Scores had been stalling even before the pandemic, but the new results show decreases on an unprecedented scale.
Across the country, math scores saw their largest decreases ever. Reading scores dropped to 1992 levels. Nearly four in 10 eighth graders failed to grasp basic math concepts. Not a single state saw a notable improvement in their average test scores, with some simply treading water at best.
In an already lopsided education system, racial inequities unsurprisingly also widened during the pandemic. In fourth grade, Black and Hispanic students saw bigger decreases than white students, widening gaps that have persisted for decades.
For older students, according to Education Week, the average high school junior who took the ACT college-entry test in spring 2021 fell from the 50th to the 46th percentile across English, reading, math, and science–equal to about three months of learning–compared to performance in 2020 and 2019.
“The pandemic disrupted education, which then led to decreases in academic learning, which then led to test score declines,” said Jeff Allen, a principal research scientist at ACT. “But there are other chains of effects. … We also believe that the pandemic has led to decreases in the social and emotional wellness of students that could also lead to decreases in academic learning.”
“We have to do more and we have to spend more,” said Roberto Rodríguez, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development. “This is a moment of truth for education.”