The Nation's Report Card is in, and it's one that the U.S. Department of Education begrudgingly signed off on — but not without a warning to do better.
The scores show declines in both reading and math at grades 4 and 8 for the majority of states in 2022, according to results released Monday for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Average national reading scores in 2022 reverted back to levels last seen in the 1990s, and math scores saw the largest declines ever recorded in that subject.
"Results in today's Nation's Report Card are appalling and unacceptable," U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told reporters. "This is a moment of truth for education."
The average math score for 4th graders fell 5 points since 2019 (from 241 to 236), while the score for 8th graders dipped 8 points (from 282 to 274), according to the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP.
In reading, average score declines were not as steep, but still decreased by 3 points in both grades compared to 2019.
NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr described the results, which are based on tests administered in early 2022, as "massive comprehensive declines everywhere."
Was this expected?
Prior to the NAEP release, many assessment experts anticipated a decline in overall scores. So while the results are not unexpected, they are still concerning, said Carr in a press briefing on Friday.
Historically, drops have only been by a couple of points. So declines in the 8-point range, such as in math, are especially troubling, Carr added.
Carr said she had expected a steeper decline in math than in reading, considering parents are more comfortable teaching their children reading than math at home.
The results tell much of the same story already shown by research and in prior tests, such as NAEP long-term trend assessments released over the summer. "Everything is pointing in the same direction," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute. "The pandemic and the resulting disruptions to learning were really bad for student achievement."
Nonetheless, Carr said, there are some "reasons to be hopeful."
In 26 selected big city districts — which represent about 9% of the nation's public school children and have worked to close gaps for historically marginalized students — the majority showed reading scores that were steady compared to 2019 in both grades.
"This is somewhat of a remarkable contrast to the nation and most states," Carr said.
Was there a link between remote learning and declines?
Students who performed higher and reported learning remotely last year were much more likely than lower-performing students to say they had access to a learning device all the time.
While 82% of higher-performing 4th graders said they consistently had a desktop computer or laptop, only 49% of lower-performing students said the same. For 8th graders who reported learning remotely, 71% of lower-performing students said they had consistent access to a learning device, while 92% of higher-performing students said the same.
The grade 4 math score gap also widened by 5 points between public schools and Catholic schools, since public school scores dipped and private Catholic school scores remained the same. Many Catholic schools reverted to in-person instruction sooner than other schools during the pandemic.
Education researchers and assessment experts have theorized the longer schools were closed, the larger the learning lags.
However, Carr warned there is no such direct link in the latest NAEP results.
"We cannot find anything in this data that says that the results we are looking at can be solely primarily attributable to differences in how long students stayed in remote learning," she said.
While it could be a factor, she said, there are many other things that could be contributing to the declines and need to be studied more extensively. Among those factors are mental health and behavioral challenges, according to Carr.
Did gaps widen?
Gaps widened in many areas. "We knew we had gaps before for struggling students," said Lesley Muldoon, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board. "And now that picture is even starker." The NAGB oversees the NAEP assessment.
Scores diverged in 4th grade math for Black and Hispanic students compared to White students, for female and male students, and for those eligible for free and reduced-price lunch compared to those not eligible.
No race — including White students, who have historically been at an advantage compared to their Black and Hispanic counterparts — experienced a statistically significant improvement in average scores. That means some gaps narrowed due to scores for White children declining, while scores for Black and Hispanic students stayed steady or declined at a slower rate. This happened in grade 8 reading, for example.
The gap widened between higher- and lower-performing students. "Now what we're seeing is students at the bottom of the distribution dropping even faster," Carr said. And where students at the top previously showed improvement or held steady, they are now instead dropping as well — just not as steeply as their lower-performing peers.
Are students starting to rebound?
The answer to whether things are turning around is a mixed bag.
While many states and even districts reported academic gains in the past school year, Petrilli says those were premature, especially considering the new NAEP scores.
"These results indicate that several states were much too cheerful about their own state assessment trends," Petrilli said. "We should be very skeptical about any claims that students are 'bouncing back' or that learning loss is 'behind us.'"
He added, however, that the NAEP scores also can't translate into how bad the learning loss was, or how much progress students may have made in catching up last school year, given that scores are only available from 2019 and 2022 and not any years in between. The 2021 NAEP was postponed to 2022 due to the impact of COVID-19 on school operations.
Research has shown students took the biggest hit during the initial phase of the pandemic, or the 2020-21 school year, according to Karyn Lewis, director of the NWEA Center for School and Student Progress. NWEA administers the MAP Growth Assessment, which is widely used by states. In 2021-22, Lewis said, students were starting to show initial signs of rebounding academically.
"Since NAEP only captures one mid-pandemic timepoint, it simply isn’t possible for those data to help us understand the temporal accumulation of achievement declines and/or when and by how much students are starting to rebound," Lewis said in an email. "This means states shouldn’t look to their NAEP results to understand whether they are making progress on the road to recovery. That simply can’t be reflected in the NAEP data."
How long will learning lags take to reverse?
Across the board, assessment experts say public education will be experiencing the impacts of the pandemic on student achievement for years to come.
Petrilli called it "a generational challenge" and said "we still have a long way to go until this cohort of students is back to where they should have been."
While some 2022 state assessments have shown "promising signs of growth," the NAEP scores suggest "more is needed for students, particularly those most directly impacted by the pandemic and who are historically marginalized," said Carissa Moffat Miller, CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers, in a statement.
Interventions, however, need to be immediate and ongoing — meaning district leaders should have been making decisions prior to this release on how to catch students up and should continue to do so, said NAGB member Julia Rafal-Baer.
"We're running out of time to ensure that our kids can recover from this level of unfinished learning," Rafal-Baer said.
What does this mean for districts?
The results should not come as a shock to districts or educators, who have been warning of declines since the start of the pandemic.
"I think for educators, hopefully, this actually provides some sense of cover that you're not the only one saying this," Rafal-Baer said.
But even though the declines were expected, she said, "it means that we've got to see an incredible shift in how we're accelerating progress."
Although districts have tried to cope with the pandemic's fallout on students' academics, Lewis said she worries "about the distance we’re seeing between the magnitude of the crisis and the scale of the response."
The NAEP data, she said, can be used by district leaders to target resources to the groups of students and subject areas that need improvement.
Across the board, assessment and education experts have suggested increased instructional time and tutoring support.
Leaders should also be asking policymakers for investments to bolster these resources, said Miah Daughtery, literacy director of content advocacy and design at NWEA.
"We have most children for 13 years, K-12, and that is a relatively short time to get it right," Daughtery said.