There’s yet more evidence that students have lost significant ground following the wobbly shift to pandemic-era remote classes that stretched for months: New data show the nation’s 13-year-olds are struggling with basic math and reading skills.
The results from a version of the Nation’s Report Card known as the long-term trend assessment, published Wednesday, show an especially notable slide in math that continues a trend predating the pandemic. The declines cut across essentially every race, affected girls and boys, and occurred for students in almost every type of setting – urban, rural or suburban. The slide in reading affected nearly as wide a group of students.
Average math scores are about how students did in 1990; average reading scores are similar to 2004.
“This is a very serious matter,” said Peggy Carr, head of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the tests. Her message to schools and policymakers: Keep going with all of the interventions and add-ons to help students not just recover from what they lost during the pandemic, but advance beyond that.
And expect that it will take time.
“The big message here,” Carr said, is “it is a long road ahead of us.”
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Students’ math skills continue to decline
Skills tested on the math portion of the long-term trend assessment for 13-year-olds included calculating the area of a square and multiplying a three-digit number by a two-digit number. In reading, a student might have been asked to discern the feelings of a character in a brief reading passage.
The decline in scores of the students tested – a nationally representative sample of nearly 9,000 seventh and eighth graders – follows a series of disheartening reports from Carr this school year about the post-pandemic status of younger students in math and reading, eighth graders on a more advanced test of the same subjects as well as in American history and civics.
“The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress is further evidence of what the Biden-Harris administration recognized from Day One: that the pandemic would have a devastating impact on students’ learning across the country and that it would take years of effort and investment to reverse the damage as well as address the 11-year decline that preceded it,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said.
The 13-year-olds who took the basic skills tests were fourth and fifth graders when the pandemic struck, and the disruption at that point in their schooling appears to have been particularly damaging. And sharper declines in math, which mirror results on the other national tests, indicate that it may be a subject more sensitive to classroom instruction than reading, Carr said, given skills from one year generally build upon in the next.
Results from NAEP, scored on a scale of 0 to 500, showed a 9-point decline in the average mathematics score compared with 2020, from 280 to 271, the single-largest decline observed in the more than 50 years the test has been given. It also represents a 14-point drop from the 2012 average score of 285.
And as seen in other recent test results, lower-performing kids receded the furthest: The mathematics score for those students returned to levels last seen in the 1970s.
A student survey given with the test showed that fewer students compared with 2012 are taking Algebra I. While the skills students learn in algebra are beyond what 13-year-olds faced on the long-term trend assessment, the course can be an indicator of whether students pursue more advanced math classes later on or even whether they will go to college.
Research about whether eighth graders should take algebra is mixed. It makes sense for some kids, but pushing it on kids who aren’t ready can backfire, cutting their confidence about math or making them dislike the subject. Carr attributed the decline largely to changes in California, which has been reconsidering when students should take Algebra I.
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Fewer kids reading for fun
Another troubling finding from Wednesday’s results: Fewer American 13-year-olds are reading just for fun, they told Carr’s agency as part of the testing, which took place late last year. About a third of 13-year-olds said they “never or hardly ever” read for fun in 2023, slightly fewer than in 2020 but notably more than the 22% who said the same in 2012.
Reading for pleasure “is correlated with higher performance,” Carr said. Nearly double the proportion of students who scored higher on the test said read for fun at least once a week compared with low scorers: 51% versus 28%.
“We do think that is part of the issue,” Carr said. “Students need to really develop a culture, an appreciation, a love for reading – not just in school but outside school.”
In reading, average scores slid from 260 to 256 compared with 2020, and they were down 7 points compared with 2012, when they peaked at 263. And the lowest-performing 13-year-olds scored lower than students who took the test the very first year the data was collected, in 1971.
Reading “opens the mind and the heart to new ways of seeing and thinking about the world,” Carr said. “Many of our young people will never discover latent passions or areas of interest without reading broadly on their own time.”
Another concern about 13-year-olds – also raised for students of all ages following the pandemic – is that more of them are missing more school: The percentage of students who reported they missed five or more days of school in a month has doubled since 2020.
Students who miss a lot of school, unsurprisingly, tend to do the worst.
Calls to intervene, fast
To help students, Carr said, educators and policymakers must focus on the whole child, taking into account their mental health and other issues.
“State leaders take these results seriously and will continue to evaluate and add supports to ensure every learner has what they need to be successful,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Although schools already have spent billions of state, local and federal dollars on new programs, staff and technology in an attempt to catch kids up, there are questions about whether it’s been spent wisely, fast enough or used at all.
“Every minute that ticks by means we are losing more time to address this crisis to ensure we aren’t going to lose an entire generation of kids because of our failure to address this education crisis with urgency,” said Keri Rodrigues, co-founder and president of the National Parents Union. “Our fear is that far too many schools are squandering this opportunity to implement immediate intervention, personalized learning plans and high-impact tutoring.”