Two years of pandemic-disrupted learning erased two decades of U.S. gains in math and reading scores for the nation’s 9-year-old students, according to national testing data released Thursday.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the “nation’s report card,” conducted a special analysis of long-term academic trends from the 1970s to the present. It offers the first federal assessment of the impact of COVID-19 era learning on test performance.
As schools switched to virtual and hybrid learning from early 2020 to winter 2022, the report found average long-term math scores fell for the first time and reading scores suffered their biggest drop since 1990.
“It’s clear that COVID-19 shocked American education and stunned the academic growth of this age group of students,” said Peggy Carr, NAEP commissioner. “We don’t make this statement lightly.”
The trends confirm the NAEP’s regular reports, which showed academic progress stalling for U.S. fourth and eighth graders in recent years.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona took a partisan spin on the new data, blaming the Trump administration’s policies for the decline and lauding President Biden’s vaccination policies that he said helped schools reopen faster.
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“Today’s data confirm the significant impact the prior administration’s mismanagement of the pandemic has had on our children’s progress and academic well-being,” Mr. Cardona said. “That’s why President Biden, from Day One of his administration, pushed so hard to get schools reopened and students back into classrooms.”
But Erika Sanzi, outreach director for the conservative Parents Defending Education, said the academic decline could have been avoided.
“It was avoidable and therein lies the scandal of it,” Ms. Sanzi said of Thursday’s report.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten lamented the pandemic’s “terrible impact,” without mentioning the decision to suspend in-person learning.
“These scores reiterate the vital importance of this school year to help students recover and thrive. This is a year to accelerate learning by rebuilding relationships, focusing on the basics and investing in our public schools,” Ms. Weingarten said in a statement.
National Education Association President Becky Pringle attributed the decline in scores to a lack of internet access among rural, Black and Hispanic students.
“From the lack of broadband and device access for virtual lessons during COVID, to dilapidated buildings and no mental health resources, our nation’s disadvantaged and marginalized students will continue to fall behind until our leaders at every level of government step up and invest in the resources and educators every student deserves and needs to succeed,” Ms. Pringle said in a statement.
According to public health experts, the schools should have stayed open.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the decision to shutter campuses came from policymakers who “valued currying political favor with teachers’ unions over actually having functional schools and following scientific data.”
“In the U.S., schools were the first to close and last to open — that is the opposite of what the paradigm should have been,” said Dr. Adalja, an infectious diseases specialist. “The policymakers that were behind these decisions should be held accountable for what they wrought.”
Boston College political scientist Michael Hartney, the author of an upcoming book on educational interest groups and public policy, said the report confirms politicians and teachers’ unions won’t be able to “wish away the consequences of their poor decisions.”
The NAEP report comes amid other recent signs of declining satisfaction and performance in America’s K-12 schools during the pandemic.
In an annual poll released Thursday, Gallup found that 42% of U.S. adults say they are satisfied “with the quality of the nation’s K-12 education,” a two-decade low and the second-lowest reading in 23 years. That share has dropped every year since reaching a near-record high of 51% in August 2019, before the pandemic.
Earlier this year, a Harvard University report on testing data from 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools found that high-poverty, multicultural public schools spent more weeks in remote instruction during 2020-21 and suffered the biggest declines in test scores. By contrast, low-poverty districts that kept their doors open lost relatively little ground.
As they reopen this fall, the nation’s public schools are struggling with a teacher shortage driven by veterans quitting the profession, safety concerns about mass shootings and increased anxiety and depression among students.
According to the NAEP report, math and reading scores dropped most steeply among low-performing students and Black students.
From 2020 to 2022, the NAEP found the average math scores of all 9-year-olds declined by 7 points and average reading scores fell 5 points.
Experts say it’s impossible to know how long it will take to heal the intellectual and emotional damage of school closures.
“What we need now is a coordinated effort of one-on-one tutoring to address skill gaps,” said Sara E. Rimm-Kaufman, a professor of education at the University of Virginia. “That needs to be paired with ramping up mental health services in schools.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Erika Sanzi’s quote.
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