Here’s How Much Progress Students Lost in the Pandemic

merican students saw some of the biggest declines in academic achievement recorded in the last 50 years, according to a nationwide assessment that paints a stark picture of the pandemic’s effect on education.

According to the U.S. Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 9-year old students saw a drop in their reading scores and math scores by five and seven points, respectively, in comparison with 2020. This is the biggest drop in math scores since 1990, and it marks the lowest reading score ever.

Since the NAEP assessments began in 1970s, scores have been increasing. The new results released on Thursday show a decrease in the average score to an level that has not been seen for about 20 years.

“This is a moment to look at these scores and use them to fuel something better,” says Allison Socol, who leads K-12 research at the Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for educational equity.

Educators and experts say the NAEP results must be a call to action to fund quality tutoring programs, a proven way to improve academic performance, and invest in hiring and retaining experienced teachers to help make up for education loss—especially for disadvantaged students.

Widening gaps

NAEP’s results reveal that achievement gaps have grown in recent years. This was predicted long before COVID-19 closed down schools, forcing students to work at home and under unbalanced conditions. For students already in difficulty, the declines were more severe; students in 10th- and 25th percentiles saw scores drop faster than students in 75th or 90th.

And Black students’ math scores dropped 13 points, compared to five points for white students, widening the gap between white and Black student scores from 25 points in 2020 to 33 points in 2022—the widest that achievement gap has been since 1978, according to NAEP results.

Education experts urge schools and policymakers focus on these disparities to prioritize students most in need of academic recovery. “Fewer 9-year-olds now have the basic reading and math skills they need. This puts their futures—and our nation’s—at great risk and should spur us all to action,” Beverly Perdue, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board and former North Carolina governor, said in a statement.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona blamed former President Donald Trump’s “mismanagement of the pandemic” in his reaction to the test scores, while highlighting the $130 billion allocated to states and school districts in the 2021 American Rescue Plan. “Our top priority remains to make sure states, schools, and districts are using these funds on strategies we know work like well-resourced schools, high-dosage tutoring and enriching afterschool programs – and directing the most resources towards students who fell furthest behind,” Cardona said in a statement.

Socol says that money represents an “unprecedented opportunity” to offer targeted support to students who need it most. However, schools that are trying to combat learning loss still face inequalities in funding. This could hamper academic recovery. While schools serving whiter students have more resources, those that are serving students from low income families and students of color tend to receive less.

“These longstanding funding inequities need to be addressed in order to turn around the trends that we’re seeing,” Socol says. “Money really, really matters. But it also matters how that money is spent.”

What to do?

In order to address the education inequalities highlighted in the report, she wants to see districts invest in qualified teachers and implement quality tutoring programs.

Elaine Allensworth from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research says that an increase in instructional time (like additional mathematics classes for students who require it) and tailored professional development for teachers can help reverse learning declines.

But she says it’s most important to focus on improving the quality of classroom instruction, making sure students receive engaging lessons and build supportive relationships with teachers. Numerous schools are facing teacher shortages which may limit their ability to provide high-dosage tutoring programs. It is best to teach three or four students at a time.

“How do you find enough people to do that tutoring who are actually going to do it well, and then how do you train them and ensure that they’re doing it with high quality?” Allensworth says. “It’s a logistical challenge as well as a financial challenge.”

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