In March of 2020, schools adapted quickly to the pandemic by finding ways to go remote. However, with so much change in so little time, the U.S. Department of Education says it was inevitable that academics would be disrupted.
We're starting to get a clear picture on just how much student achievement was impacted from 2020 to 2022. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also referred to as the Nation's Report Card, offers concrete evidence through data.
The results from the Nation's 2022 Report Card are historic. U.S. students across all racial ethnic groups experienced the steepest drop in math scores since initial assessments in 1990.
The data released from the National Center for Education Statistics shows the difference in scores between 2019 to 2022 for both 4th and 8th graders. They measured scores in mathematics and reading in all 50 states.
Looking specifically at math scores, the average fourth-grade math score decreased five points compared to 20-19. That's the lowest number since 2005. For 8th graders, results were even more drastic. The average score decreased by eight points compared to 2019 – which is the lowest score since 2003.
Ebony Walton is a statistician and analyst with the National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education. She says this major setback is particularly concerning for students wanting to prepare for STEM careers.
"Grade eight mathematics, we know, is a critical point in students academic careers," Walton said. "And this should be an alarm to a sense in that it indicates challenges that students have in accessing particularly higher level math skills before they get into high school."
When looking at national reading scores, those remained relatively stable in 2022 compared to 2019. There actually hasn't been a lot of change in reading scores since the start of the assessment in 1990.
"A lot of people in the field believe that reading is something that you can do at home pretty easily," Walton said. "You know, students can grab a book at any time and build their skills outside of the classroom. It's a little bit different with mathematics, where you need steady instruction to understand the content."
As part of data collection, teachers were asked how the disruption of the pandemic affected them. They said they felt overworked, and nearly half of teachers said they’re not confident they can help their students close the pandemic-related learning gaps.
"It is a little bit disheartening because that's just one question," Walton said. "There's so many other questions we will have to follow up with teachers to really dig and investigate what are their needs."
Walton says it's critical teachers receive the resources they need to address the pandemic-related gap.
Although all students were impacted by the pandemic, Walton says there was already a widening gap between higher-performing students and lower-performing students. Data shows there was a decline in both math and reading scores in the years leading up to the pandemic.
"Around 2009 through 2019, we noticed what we call a divergence where higher-performing students actually improved in these subjects while lower-performing students actually declined."
Walton says it will take a broad-based approach involving policy makers, researchers, and even mental health professionals to improve education for U.S. students going forward.