Pandemic Gutted Decades of Student Progress in Reading, Math

June 21, 2023 by Dan McCue
Pandemic Gutted Decades of Student Progress in Reading, Math
(National Center for Education Statistics photo)

WASHINGTON — Student performance in reading and math has fallen significantly since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with the nation’s current crop of 13-year-olds showing the largest declines ever recorded according to test scores released Wednesday by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The sobering assessment is based on the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal standardized test that was administered last fall.

The test, considered the national gold standard for academic assessment, showed that the young teens who took the test scored an average of 256 out of 500 in reading, a decline of about four points between the 2019-2020 and 2022-2023 school years, while in math they scored 271 out of 500, down about nine points over the same period.

The last time that reading performance by a generation of the nation’s 13-year-olds was this low was in 2004. For math, the current low was last matched in 1990.

“The ‘green shoots’ of academic recovery that we had hoped to see have not materialized, as we continue to see worrisome signs about student achievement and well-being more than two years after most students returned for in-person learning,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr in a written statement.

“There are signs of risk for a generation of learners in the data we are releasing today and have released over the past year. We are observing steep drops in achievement, troubling shifts in reading habits and other factors that affect achievement, and rising mental health challenges alongside alarming changes in school climate,” she said.

Noting that the mathematics decline for 13-year-olds was the single largest decline her agency has observed in the past half century, Carr expressed deep concern for the lowest-performing students in the latest round of testing, a group that appears to have been most affected when the pandemic upended the nation’s education system.

“The mathematics score for the lowest-performing students has returned to levels last seen in the 1970s, and the reading score for our lowest-performing students was actually lower than it was the very first year these data were collected, in 1971,” she said.

The data released Wednesday shows that academic achievement declined among all races, classes and income levels.

Scores declined for girls as well as boys, across all regions of the country, and across all school locations, the agency said.

The degree of decline post-pandemic appears to have hit the more vulnerable population of students — Blacks, Native Americans and those living in low-income families — the hardest, with their scores, particularly in math, falling much more than other groups.

But officials suggested it would be wrong to blame the pandemic for all of the educational woes identified by the latest test results.

In reality, said NCES acting Associate Commissioner Dan McGrath, scores for 13-year-olds declined for the first time in both subjects between 2012 and 2020, beginning a troubling downward trajectory that has lasted for more than a decade, and has not been reversed.

“Middle school is a critical time for students — a time when they are maturing academically as well as socially and emotionally. What happens for students in middle school can strongly influence their path through high school and beyond,” he said.

Sharp Decline in Reading ‘for Fun’

Education professionals have long known that students who read for fun are also more likely to enjoy a higher degree of academic achievement.

Higher-performing students were more likely to read for fun; 51% of 13-year-olds scoring at or above the 75th percentile on the NAEP reading assessment reported reading for fun at least once per week, while 28% of students scoring below the 25th percentile reported reading for fun at least once per week.

“Yet fewer students, especially lower-performing students, are reading for fun compared to a decade ago,” Carr said.

The percentage of 13-year-olds who said they “never or hardly ever” read for fun has risen over the past decade; about one-third (31%) of 13-year-olds said they “never or hardly ever” read for fun in 2023, while 22% said they “never or hardly ever” read for fun in 2012.

“Aside from its academic effects, reading opens the mind and the heart to new ways of seeing and thinking about the world. Many of our young people will never discover latent passions or areas of interest without reading broadly on their own time,” Carr said.

More Students Passing on Algebra

The agency also noted that there has been a significant shift in the nature of mathematics course-taking over the past decade. 

In 2012, about one-third of 13-year-olds (34%) said they were currently taking algebra; in 2023, only 24% said they were doing so.

The percentage of 13-year-olds enrolled in pre-algebra has also declined over the past 10 years.

In 2012, 29% of 13-year-olds said they were currently taking pre-algebra; in 2023, the number shrank to 22%. 

By contrast, the agency said, the percentage of 13-year-olds taking regular mathematics has risen. In 2012, 28% of 13-year-olds said they were currently taking regular mathematics, and that has risen to 42% in 2023.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress test has been used to monitor student performance in reading and mathematics since the 1970s, doing so through long-term trend assessments. 

These assessments are age-based, rather than grade-based, and assess 9-year-old, 13-year-old, and 17-year-old students.

The 2023 long-term trend assessment for 13-year-olds was administered between October and December of 2022, the assessment schedule being amended so the agency could report how student achievement has changed since immediately before the onset of the COVID-19 global health crisis.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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  • Math skills
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  • National Center for Education Statistics
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