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U.S. reading and math scores drop to lowest level in decades

LA Johnson

The average test scores for U.S. 13-year-olds have dipped in reading and dropped sharply in math since 2020, according to new data from National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The average scores, from tests given last fall, declined 4 points in reading and 9 points in math, compared with tests given in the 2019-2020 school year, and are the lowest in decades. The declines in reading were more pronounced for lower performing students, but dropped across all percentiles.

The math scores were even more disappointing. On a scale of 500 points, the declines ranged from 6 to 8 points for middle and high performing students, to 12 to 14 points for low performing students.

The math results also showed widening gaps based on gender and race. Scores decreased by 11 points for female students over 2020 results, compared with a 7-point decrease for male students.

Among Black students, math scores declined 13 points, while white students had a 6-point drop. Compared with the 35-point gap between Black and white students in 2020, the disparity widened to 42 points.

"Unfinished learning continues to weigh on students across all grades and subjects," said Denise Forte, president and CEO of The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group. "And this is especially true for Black and Latino students, English learners, and students from low-income backgrounds who experienced the brunt of pandemic-related upheaval and uncertainties,"

The latest results are from the NAEP Long-Term Trend Assessment, traditionally administered every four years by the National Center for Education Statistics.

In releasing the data, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the scores strongly reflect the losses caused by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, which in many cases left schools closed for more than a year. The results, he said in a statement, confirmed predictions 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."

While the scores show a drop from the pre-pandemic years, the results also show that there are other factors at work. The decline is even more substantial when compared with scores of a decade ago: The average scores declined 7 points in reading and 14 points in mathematics.

The Education Department says plans are underway to address the learning loss.

"Schools have committed nearly 60 percent of their American Rescue Plan funds to address lost learning time and accelerate academic recovery," Cardona said in a statement on Wednesday. Those funds can be used for things like hiring more teachers, counselors, and support staff or providing increased tutoring and one-on-one support to students.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.