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Pandemic challenges cause significant declines in student reading and math scores

A stack of books with an apple on top
Bruce Fingerhood

News brief

New Department of Education data shows that U.S. students’ math and reading scores have suffered over the course of the pandemic since 2019.

“We weren’t surprised. We knew we were going to see declines,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which collected the data.

The dataset included hundreds of thousands of scores from fourth and eight graders across the U.S., and it showed the steepest declines were in math.

Carr said that wasn’t a surprise, either.

“We call upon the wealth of literature that shows math is just simply more sensitive to schooling. You really need the teachers to teach math,” Carr said.

She added that reading is something that parents and communities are more comfortable helping students with.

It’s normal for parents to ask kids to go read a book and talk about it afterward, but she said, “It is not usual for parents to say ‘go and calculate that math equation that you struggled with a couple weeks ago.’”

The decline in scores cannot be attributed solely to specific COVID-19 closure policies, according to Carr, but she added that the NCES will be digging into the data to understand why certain schools outperformed others.

National data included scores from public schools, private schools, Bureau of Indian Education schools and Department of Defense schools.

State-level data only included public schools.

Utah public schools and the DOD schools bucked math trends a bit. Neither reported a significant drop for 8th grade math scores — the only two entities to do so.

Many other states in the Mountain West similarly overcame the national declines in reading scores, including stable scores for fourth graders in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona. There were also stable scores for eighth graders in Utah, Nevada and Arizona.

The NCES data shows national reading scores are the lowest they’ve been since tracking started in 1992, but they hadn’t increased much since then, either. Math scores are about as low as they were in the early 2000s.

New Mexico, unfortunately, has faced the steepest math score declines in the region, and already had some of the lowest reading scores.

Eighth graders there are now testing below basic levels for the first time since 2000. Reading scores didn’t fall as fast, but are still below national averages. Fourth graders’ reading scores are the lowest they’ve been since tracking started in the ‘90s.

Reading and math score declines affected all kinds of students around the U.S., ranging from top-performers to those already struggling, though the latter group experienced the largest declines.

The data also reveals increasing education gaps based on race and sex. Students who were already struggling and who were American Indian/Alaska Native, Black or Hispanic had the steepest declines in math scores. Women also had steeper declines than men in all categories.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said on a press call that the nation’s backtrack is unacceptable.

“A once-in-a generation virus upended our country in so many ways, and our students cannot be the ones who sacrifice most in the long run. We must treat the task of catching our children up with the urgency that this moment demands,” he said in a press call.

He added that pre-pandemic education data wasn’t great either, but the pandemic made things worse.

“It took poor performance and dropped it down ever farther. As an educator and as a parent, that’s heartbreaking and it’s horrible. It’s an urgent call to action. We must raise the bar in education,” he said in a statement.

There was funding allocated in the Democrat-backed American Rescue Plan to address learning loss, and Cardona added that his department will provide more tools to access that soon.

However, schools are also still working with limited state funding, and for many, limited staff.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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