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‘Appalling and unacceptable’: Students’ math test scores fell across the board nationwide after COVID-19

Public school students’ math performance in San Diego Unified, California and across the country suffered their steepest declines in more than two decades after two turbulent years of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2022 national standardized test scores released Sunday night show.

But despite the hardships of the pandemic, students’ reading scores in San Diego Unified and statewide managed to hold steady with 2019 levels.

Federal education officials released long-awaited results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, that show for the first time how fourth- and eighth-graders’ reading and math performance has changed since 2019.

The Nation’s Report Card is the only set of standardized tests that can be used to compare student performance across states because it is administered consistently and to representative samples of students in all states. District-specific scores are also collected from a select 26 large urban districts nationwide, including San Diego Unified.

The results painted a grim picture of the toll that years of the pandemic took on student achievement, especially math.

Average nationwide math scores saw their sharpest declines in the history of the Nation’s Report Card, dropping five points for fourth-graders and eight points for eighth-graders.

There was a “troubling rise” in numbers of students nationwide who aren’t meeting the test’s “basic” achievement level, which represents partial mastery of content, said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the federal National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the Nation’s Report Card.

A quarter of fourth-graders and 38 percent of eighth-graders nationwide failed to meet the basic level in math, while 37 percent of fourth-graders and 30 percent of eighth-graders scored below basic in reading.

The numbers are worse in California, where a third of fourth-graders and 44 percent of eighth-graders scored below basic in math. About 42 percent of California fourth-graders and a third of eighth-graders scored below basic in reading.

While overall all students suffered drops in performance, lower-performing students suffered steeper drops in average scores from 2019 to 2022, widening the gaps between lower- and higher-performing students.

Statistically, students across California performed on par with the national average in reading but worse than the national average for math in both fourth and eighth grades.

“The results in today’s Nation’s Report Card are appalling and unacceptable,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a Friday call with reporters. “They are a reminder of the impact this pandemic had on our learners and the important work we must do now for our students.”

But Carr argued there are “bright spots,” in that the selected large urban districts on average kept reading performance at 2019 levels.

“There are serious concerns in these data, but there are also reasons to be hopeful,” Carr said.

She said it wasn’t surprising to see that math performance suffered more during the pandemic, because research has shown students rely more on teachers and schools for learning math. With reading, it’s easier for parents to help their kids at home.

San Diego Unified students still significantly outperform students in other large urban districts, as they have in recent years. The district’s average scores and numbers of students meeting proficiency surpassed national and state averages in all subjects and grades, except for fourth-grade math.

About 37 percent of San Diego Unified’s fourth-graders scored proficient or advanced in reading this year, which is unchanged from 2019. And 34 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced in reading, which is down slightly from 36 percent in 2019.

The drops were steeper for math: Thirty-four percent of fourth-graders and 28 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced in math this year, down from 42 percent of fourth-graders and 35 percent of eighth-graders in 2019.

More San Diego Unified students are also failing to meet the basic achievement level for math: Thirty-one percent of San Diego fourth-graders and 40 percent of eighth-graders failed to do so, up from 21 percent and 33 percent in 2019 respectively.

Within San Diego’s overall test scores, large gaps persist for historically marginalized students, including low-income, Black and Hispanic students.

The percentages of San Diego Unified’s Hispanic students who scored proficient or advanced are 30 to 40 percentage points lower than those of White students. There is a similar gap between lower- and higher-income students.

This year, just 4 percent of San Diego’s Black eighth-grade students scored proficient or advanced in math, compared to 49 percent of Asian students and 46 percent of White students.

However, San Diego Unified’s gaps in achievement levels between marginalized students and their more advantaged peers generally did not widen. In fact, gaps between Hispanic and White students as well as between lower- and higher-income students narrowed, because higher-income and White students’ performance fell more sharply during the pandemic.

“The NAEP results offer us more insight into the needs of our students. The results will inform our efforts to support students during this recovery period,” San Diego Unified Superintendent Lamont Jackson said in a statement. “Our entire district is committed to providing every student with the academic and social-emotional supports they need to thrive.”

While federal officials say the Nation’s Report Card does not try to speculate as to what causes changes in student performance, they said it’s safe to say that the effects of the pandemic are at least partly what’s driving the drops in performance.

Survey questions that were asked of Nation’s Report Card test-takers showed that students’ lack of reliable access to learning resources during school closures correlated with poorer performance.

Higher-performing students were significantly more likely to have had consistent access to learning resources than lower-performing students. Higher-performing students were more likely to report that they had reliable or frequent access to a computer or tablet, high-speed internet, school supplies and a quiet place to work, as well as teacher help at least once a week and frequent live video lessons.

Some parents, politicians and education experts have argued that states’ and school boards’ decisions to keep schools closed for many months were a key factor in driving score declines.

But national testing officials warned against attributing the declines to closures.

Carr said there were performance declines everywhere, even in places where schools reopened earlier. And during the closures and later in the pandemic, there were many other factors, both inside and outside of schools’ control, that could have influenced student performance, such as the quality of distance learning, school staffing shortages, economic upheaval, family illness and death, poor mental health and chronic absenteeism.

“There’s nothing in this data that tells us that there is a measurable difference in the performance between states and districts based solely on how long schools were closed,” Carr said. “And let’s not forget that remote learning looked very differently all across the United States … it is extremely complex.”

Officials said the test results underscore the need for schools to continue academic and emotional recovery efforts.

“We must treat the task of catching our children up with the urgency that this moment demands,” Cardona said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office noted the state has spent $24 billion for schools to address COVID-19 and learning and mental health recovery, on top of increasing general state school funding to its highest level in state history.

The federal government has allocated $190 billion in pandemic aid for schools but has only required that 20 percent of most federal aid be spent on recovery. Because reporting requirements are limited, it has been difficult to see exactly how districts have been spending COVID-19 dollars. Experts have noted that some recovery efforts, such as summer school, are not guaranteed to reach all students who need help and that they require schools to get buy-in from families.

The Nation’s Report Card was released hours before California was expected to release scores for its own state standardized tests, which contain different content and measure student performance by different standards.

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