As the third year into the pandemic starts winding down, more and more data has been shared to prove the dire impact isolation caused in many aspects of young people’s lives. The latest showcases how much the pandemic hurt education, namely in certain subjects for 9-year-old schoolchildren. According to The New York Times, national test results released on Sept. 1 show performance levels in math and reading have dropped by historic numbers.
Tests were given to a national sample of 14,800 9 year olds and compared to results of the same age group in early 2020, right before the pandemic shut down schools. Information collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show reading scores dropped by the largest margin in 30 years, while math scores decreased for the first time since the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) started tracking kids’ academic accomplishments in the 1970s with standardized testing.
In math, the average score dropped by seven percentage points between 2020 and 2022, while the average reading score fell by five points in the same time period. The pandemic’s effect on education reached the majority of races and income levels but was notably worse for low-performing students. Children in the bottom 10th percentile saw their performance decline by 12 percentage points, while those in the 90th percentile saw a more marginal decrease of three points. The pandemic’s effect on math also had a larger impact on children of color. Black students’ math scores dropped by 13 points compared to five points among white students, which widened the divide between the two groups by eight points. Hispanic students’ scores also fell by eight points.
Interestingly enough, the pandemic’s effect on reading was more uniform between races, with a six point decline in Black, Hispanic, and white students. The study also found that test scores didn’t significantly change for Asian American, Native American or mixed race students.
Much of the nation skipped standardized testing after COVID hit, so these findings are an early glimpse into the pandemic’s effect on education. The NAEP plans to release broader data later this year.
“These are some of the largest declines we have observed in a single assessment cycle in 50 years of the NAEP program,” said Daniel McGrath, the acting associate commissioner of NCES. “Students in 2022 are performing at a level last seen two decades ago.”
The study reflects two years of upheaval in the American school system, as teachers and parents attempted to navigate distance learning while schools were shut down for months on end, and in-school learning was further disrupted whenever a COVID outbreak hit. The results aren’t surprising (teaching and learning math in a pandemic is not easy!), but that doesn’t make them any less concerning—especially for students who were already behind.
“Student test scores, even starting in first, second and third grade, are really quite predictive of their success later in school, and their educational trajectories overall,” said Susanna Loeb, the director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which focuses on education inequality.
“The biggest reason to be concerned is the lower achievement of the lower-achieving kids,” she added, explaining that being so far behind could lead to disengagement in school, which could lead to not graduating high school or attending college.
Thankfully, the federal government has budgeted $122 billion to help students recover, with at least 20 percent of that being allocated to academic catch-up, but Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and member of the National Assessment Governing Board that oversees the test, doesn’t see a solution for under-performing students other than increased learning time either in the form of tutoring, extended school days, or summer school.
“I don’t see a silver bullet,” West said, “beyond finding a way to increase instructional time.”