Reading & math scores decrease

September 5, 2022

Failing Grade?

What a new federal study says about how the pandemic impacted reading and math scores among children.
What to know. Why it matters.

The Study

  • Who: Conducted by National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a federal agency under the U.S. Education Dept. It’s an early look before broader data will be released in the “Nation’s Report Card” later this year. The annual study has been in use since the 1970s.
  • What: Math & reading assessments given to 9-year-old students (typically in the 4th grade) to examine achievement during the pandemic (winter 2020 vs. winter 2022).
  • Findings: Overall declines. The first time *ever* that math scores dropped & the largest score decline in reading since 1990.
“Students in 2022 are performing at a level last seen two decades ago."

Acting associate commissioner of NCES, Daniel McGrath. Student’s reading performance dropped an average of 5 points since 2020 & math performance dropped an average of 7 points. One expert estimates losing one point on the exam translates to about three weeks of learning. Therefore, high-performing students who lost three points in math could catch up in about nine weeks while a low-performing student who lost 12 points would need nearly nine months to catch up (The New York Times).

“While we see declines at all performance levels, the growing gap between students at the top and those at the bottom is an important but overlooked trend.”

Martin West, Harvard Graduate School of Education, who sits on the board that sets policy for the study. Compared to 2020, lower-performing students (10th & 25th percentiles) saw more of a decline in reading & math than higher-performing students (75th & 90th percentiles).

Why It Matters

  • First study of its kind to look at student achievement before the pandemic (January – March 2020) compared to the same time during 2022. The study reflects some of the largest declines seen in the past 50 years.
  • Peggy Carr, commissioner of the NCES calls the results “sobering,” continuing: “It’s clear that COVID-19 shocked American education and stunted the academic growth of this age group.”

Researchers say many factors may contribute to student achievement, while also noting this study is “not designed to identify the causes of performance differences.” The data also included an overview of remote learning. Higher performers during remote learning “had greater access to a desktop computer, laptop, or tablet all the time; a quiet place to work available some of the time; and a teacher available to help them with mathematics or reading schoolwork every day or almost every day.” Lower performers reported having less access to a computer or tablet, a less quiet space to work in, and their teacher was not as available.

The NCES report

The Pandemic Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading (The New York Times)

Reading and math scores fell sharply during pandemic, data show (NBC News)

For more — Explore NAEP Long-Term Trends in Reading and Mathematics

by Jenna Lee,