The Education Department recently released its "National Report Card," which showed the largest declines in test scores since the federal government began tracking these metrics in 1990. Of the different subjects tested, math scores were hardest hit by the school shutdowns. (Related: School pandemic shutdowns to blame for historic drop in mathematics and reading proficiency scores among American children.)
The tests in the report were administered to nationally representative samples of fourth- and eighth-grade students between January and March.
According to the test results, the math proficiency scores of eighth graders declined by seven percentage points compared to 2019 test scores. For fourth graders, math scores dropped by five points.
The math scores of the fourth graders were "lower than all previous assessment years going back to 2005; the average score was one point higher compared to 2003," the Education Department wrote in the report. "The average eighth-grade mathematics score declined for most states/jurisdictions as well as for most participating urban districts compared to 2019."
National average reading scores plummeted by three points nationally compared to 2019 for both fourth- and eighth-grade students. For fourth graders, this score is lower than all previous assessment years going back to 2005. For eighth graders, the reading scores were lower compared to all previous assessments going back to 1998.
Scores for both fourth- and eighth-graders were not significantly different in comparison to the reading test scores for 1992.
Not a single state was able to improve the math scores of their fourth and eighth graders, though a few states were able to prevent large score decreases.
Previous studies have already documented similar dips in reading and math after certain states and school districts shut down classrooms in favor of online remote learning. But the National Report Card is considered to be the first comprehensive and nationwide accounting of student performance since the onset of the school closures.
Those with more frequent access to a computer, a quiet workspace and extra assistance from teachers were more likely to be high performers among students who were stuck with online learning during the 2020 to 2021 school year, according to data gathered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Among eighth-graders, higher performers reported more participation in real-time video lessons with their teachers compared to their lower-performing peers.
The data further show that test scores dropped most sharply for Black and Hispanic children, and performance gaps between White and Black and Hispanic students have only widened since 2019.
Critics of pandemic-era school shutdowns have pointed to the data and the learning loss suffered by students as proof that schools should never have been closed.
"Classroom closures failed our students and crushed their academic progress," said Republican Rep. Burgess Owens of Utah. "I introduced the RECOVER Act to fight this learning loss crisis by empowering parents to help get their kids back on track."
In a written statement, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona described the test results as "appalling," noting that it should spur the government to act. "We must treat the task of catching our children up in reading and math with the urgency this moment demands," said Cardona.
Proponents of school shutdowns claim the learning loss is the price that had to be paid to keep people safe during the pandemic.
"This was to be expected," said Sherrilyn Ifill, former president and director-counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense and Education Fund and a senior fellow at the Ford Foundation. "It was the price for keeping as many teachers, school workers, children, their families alive. Now let's roll up our sleeves [and] get to work on it. Children suffer learning loss in war zones, from sickness, displacement."
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