The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, offer the most definitive indictment of the pandemic’s impact on millions of schoolchildren. In math, the results were especially devastating, representing the steepest declines ever recorded on the exam.
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Reading scores dipped nearly every state, although not as sharply as math scores. The declines were especially pronounced among low-income and Hispanic students disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
The results are a stark reminder of educators’ challenges as they try to help students make up for lost learning time. They also underscore the need for additional resources to support students and teachers.
“This is a wake-up call,” said Peggy Gonder, president of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the exam. “We must do better by our nation’s children.”
The NAEP is given to a representative sample of fourth and eighth graders every two years. It is considered the gold standard of student achievement, providing reliable data that can be used to compare states and demographic groups.
The most recent results are based on tests taken last fall by more than 600,000 students. The pandemic has upended education unprecedentedly, forcing schools to close their doors and move instruction online.
In response to the NAEP results, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the Biden administration was committed to addressing the “learning loss” caused by the pandemic.
“We know that our students have faced immense challenges over the past year, and we must do everything in our power to help them recover and rebuild,” Cardona said.
The administration has proposed a $1.9 trillion relief package that includes billions of dollars for schools. The plan is currently being debated in Congress.
The NAEP results will likely fuel that debate as they provide hard data on how many ground students lost during the pandemic.
In math, scores fell in 37 states and the District of Columbia, with the biggest declines in Arizona, Connecticut and Massachusetts. In reading, scores fell in 32 states and the District of Columbia, with the biggest drops in Arizona, Delaware and Rhode Island.
Overall, the average math score for fourth graders fell three points from 2019 to 2020. For eighth graders, the decline was four points. In reading, the average fourth-grade score fell two points, while the eighth-grade score dipped by one point.
The NAEP results are “alarming but not surprising,” said David Driscoll, a member of the governing board and chairman of Achieve, a nonpartisan educational organisation.
“This is a teachable moment for America,” Driscoll said. “We can do better.”
The NAEP results come as educators grapple with how to assess student learning during the pandemic. Some schools have given standardised tests, while others have relied on classroom work and projects.
The NAEP differs from most standardised tests because it cannot be used to compare individual students. But it provides an important snapshot of student achievement across the country.
“This is a powerful reminder of the importance of assessment,” said Deborah Stipek, a Stanford University professor and a governing board member. “It is essential for informing our understanding of what students know and can do.”
The NAEP results will likely intensify the debate over how to reopen schools safely. Some educators have called for a cautious approach, citing the need to protect students and staff members from the coronavirus.
Others have argued that schools should reopen as quickly as possible, noting the toll online learning has taken on students. The new NAEP results could add weight to that argument.
“This data should be a clarion call for us to get kids back in school,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We need to do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
How would you react to the news that math scores have fallen in nearly every U.S. state?