The nation's 13-year-olds are not showing signs of academic recovery, with long-term trends in the Nation's Report Card revealing the steepest declines ever recorded in math for the age group since the assessment was first administered in the 1970s.
The assessment — which included 8,700 students from 460 schools — was administered October-December 2022. Results released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics display "troubling" trends, according to NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr.
The average math score for 13-year olds — who were in grades 4 and 5 during the start of COVID-19 — declined by 9 points between the beginning of the pandemic in 2019-20 and the current school year. That's a 14-point drop from scores recorded a decade ago in 2012.
Meanwhile — and similar to long-term trend scores for 9-year olds released last September — declines in reading were not as steep. For 13-year-olds, reading scores fell 4 points since the pandemic began and 7 points when compared to 2012.
"The bottom line: These results show that there are troubling gaps in the basic skills of the students," Carr told a media briefing Tuesday on the new National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend assessment.
Students struggled to locate information in a 50-word reading passage, for example. And in math, students were challenged by simple multiplication and calculating the area of a square.
"I think what we're seeing here is that students' basic skills were disrupted in a way that we would not have thought before," Carr said. "These data are clear on that point."
No signs of academic recovery on national level
On a national level, the data suggests 13-year-olds aren't showing signs of academic recovery.
“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 Carr in a statement.
While it's possible some districts and states are detecting a different story locally, NCES does not collect long-term trends on that level.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona did, however, point to hopeful signs.
Math and literacy assessments in several states show students are getting back to pre-pandemic achievement levels, Cardona said in a statement.
“While this latest data reminds us how far we still need to go, I’m encouraged that the historic investments and resources provided by the American Rescue Plan and the Department of Education are beginning to show positive results," he said.
Shifts in how students approach core subjects
The newly reported steep declines on the national level cap off a decade of stagnation in academic performance for this age group that began in 2012. Before then, 13-year-olds had shown noticeable improvements in math and some improvement in reading.
"The pandemic has made things worse and made things more challenging for us," Carr said. "But these troubling trends that we see date back a decade, particularly for lower-performing students."
The lowest-performing students in grades 7 and 8 showed steeper declines in the 2022-23 school year than their higher-performing counterparts, a trend also seen in past assessments.
The math decline for 13-year-olds, Carr said in a statement, was the single largest decline observed in the past 50 years. “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.”
The scores come amid shifting trends in how students are approaching reading and math, according to NCES. Fewer students are reading for fun compared to a decade ago, and the percentage of 13-year-olds taking algebra has declined from 34% in 2012 to less than a quarter now.
How long will recovery take?
According to Carr, the drops in scores for middle schoolers are especially concerning because this marks a critical time for students. "What happens for students in middle school can strongly influence their path through high school and beyond," she said. "The current data shows 'signs of risk for a generation of learners."
The score decline mirrors the long-term trend shown among 9-year-olds. Those results were released last year and showed a significant drop for the first time in that age group.
The report released Wednesday for the older age group "reinforces the fact that academic recovery is going to take some time," Carr said. "We have to remember that these are going to continue to be challenging times for us for a while, and the focus should be on the whole child, not just academics."
Schools should think about children's overall experiences in school, including mental health, school safety, staffing and absenteeism, she said.
Cardona pointed out that schools have committed almost 60% of their pandemic emergency fund under the American Rescue Plan to address challenges from learning loss.
Still, he added, “more action is needed at every level to reverse decades of educational neglect.”