Student record

US math and reading students plummet, highlighting effects of pandemic on children

Tests of thousands of nine-year-olds across the United States earlier this year showed a drop in reading scores from 2020, the largest since 1990, and the first drop in math scores.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Two years after the spread of COVID-19 prompted administrators around the world to close schools, American students have seen some of the worst drops in test scores on record, underscoring the severity and longevity of the pandemic’s toll on children.

The testing of thousands of nine-year-old students in the United States earlier this year by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which bills itself as the “report card of the nation”, showed a drop in scores in reading compared to 2020 which is the most important. since 1990, and the first drop in math scores.

The drop in performance, published in a new report this week, was much more acute for students from racialized communities and those who were already struggling in school. Black students saw a 13-point drop in math, compared to six points for white children. Hispanic students also experienced an outsized decline. In reading, the drop in scores is five times more pronounced for students in the bottom decile than for those in the top decile. Mathematics scores saw a four-fold gap in the decline between top and bottom performers.

“The impact of the pandemic on students, teachers and schools is unprecedented,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which conducts the national report card tests. The data shows the deployment of “lasting effects” in education, she said in an interview.

The national assessment was not conducted in 2021, meaning the scores reflect how students fared after returning to more normal operations for many cities and schools. Still, the results show the pandemic has reversed years of “slow and steady progress,” said Thurston Domina, an education researcher at the University of North Carolina. Although virtually all groups showed declines, the decline in scores came mainly from students who already had lower grades.

“If you’re a high-achieving kid, if you’re in the top 10 percent nationally, that’s a roadblock,” Professor Domina said. “But it’s a big step backwards for the kids at the bottom of the cast.”


Average Reading and Math Scores of Nine-Year-Old Students in the United States

1980 to 2022

Reading and math scores of nine-year-old students in the United States, by race and percentile

2020 vs. 2022

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS

Average Reading and Math Scores of Nine-Year-Old Students in the United States

1980 to 2022

Reading and math scores of nine-year-old students in the United States, by race and percentile

2020 vs. 2022

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS

Average Reading and Math Scores of Nine-Year-Old Students in the United States

1980 to 2022

Reading and math scores of nine-year-old students in the United States, by race and percentile

2020 vs. 2022

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF EDUCATIONAL PROGRESS

US scores show broadly similar results to tests conducted in other Western countries, including Europe. In Canada, where data is sparser, it is more difficult to determine the effect of the pandemic on classrooms, although some indicators suggest notable delays. A University of Alberta study found that Edmonton-area grade 1 and 2 students performed, on average, eight months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks at end of the 2020-2021 school year.

US scores offer hope that time will bring improvements. They suggest that students are now, on average, behind “on the order of a few months”, Professor Domina said.

“I don’t think we have a lost generation. But I think we have a real challenge ahead. And we just have to collectively focus our attention on our children,” he said.

Other US research points to a recovery underway – but not for all students. The NWEA, an educational research group formerly known as the Northwest Evaluation Association, found that last year students in grades 2-5 recovered about a quarter of the drop in reading and math scores compared to the first pandemic year. At this rate, it will take about three to five years to close the gap.

But for middle school students, “we’re seeing some stagnation, where the gaps remain pretty consistent,” said Karyn Lewis, director of the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA. It’s unclear why — maybe the pandemic disruptions hit them harder, or maybe schools did more to intervene with younger students — but for those older students, a rebound should take a lot longer. of time.

In the United States, the decline in school results has only fueled the heated debate on the response to the pandemic.

On Thursday, Joe Biden’s White House sought to deflect blame for poor test results, with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre blaming Donald Trump’s policies. “We need to undo the damage that was done by the last administration,” she said Thursday.

While president, Trump denounced numerous pandemic measures and urged schools to stay open. On average, regions that voted for Mr. Trump received more in-person instructions. But keeping the kids in the classroom turned out to be “the right instinct,” said Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University.

“Remote learning has hurt success and growth,” Ms. Lewis added. “We consistently find that when schools were away longer, the negative impacts were greater.”

The NAEP study showed that among students learning from home, those with lower scores tended to have more difficult access to teachers, computers, high-speed internet and a quiet place to work.

But the NAEP also found exceptions that suggest remote learning isn’t universally harmful. Ethnic groups with higher rates of remote learning — Asian communities, in particular — “scored the highest,” Carr said.

For education authorities around the world, a key question now is how to reverse the effects of the pandemic. Work from Carr’s center shows that one of the most promising measures is to recruit additional tutors. But the teacher shortage in parts of the United States has gotten so bad that some districts in Texas only provide four days of instruction a week, while schools in Florida hire untrained military veterans.

Still, Ms Lewis warned of fears that such setbacks are intractable. School performance plummeted for students in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina, for example.

But “research also shows that these children eventually bounce back,” she said. “It takes time, but it’s not impossible.”

With a report by Caroline Alphonso

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