Average math and reading test scores for 13-year-olds in the United States hit the lowest levels in decades, according to a recent national long-term trend assessment released on Wednesday.
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) officials reported the declining education levels occurred during the pandemic. However, the downward trajectory began at least a decade before government officials and school districts shuttered classroom doors and switched to online learning in response to COVID.
NAEP, which has been monitoring student performance in both subjects since the 1970s, administered the federal standardized basic skills tests last fall that showed an average of 256 out of 500 in reading scores and 271 out of 500 in mathematics scores in the 2022‒23 school year. Three years ago, reading levels were at 260, while math scores averaged about 280. Although the scores represented primarily lower-performing students and minority groups, every percentile saw decreased levels.
“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,” National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner Peggy G. Carr said in a news release. “There are signs of risk for a generation of learners in the data we are releasing today and have released over the past year.”
Carr said the center observed steep drops in achievement, troubling shifts in reading habits, and rising mental health challenges paired with “alarming” changes in school climate.
“The mathematics decline for 13-year-olds was the single largest decline we have observed in the past half a century,” Carr added. “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.”
According to the center, fewer students engage in “reading for fun” and forego taking algebra courses since 2012, particularly in the Western region of the U.S.
“Aside from its academic effects, reading opens the mind and the heart to new ways of seeing and thinking about the world,” Carr said. “Many of our young people will never discover latent passions or areas of interest without reading broadly on their own time.”
NCES acting Associate Commissioner Dan McGrath said before 2012, the center noticed improvements in math and some in reading since the 1970s. However, middle school students’ learning achievements continued declining, lasting more than a decade.
“Middle school is a critical time for students — a time when they are maturing academically as well as socially and emotionally,” McGrath said. “What happens for students in middle school can strongly influence their path through high school and beyond.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona addressed the assessment in a news release on Wednesday, arguing the latest data shows further evidence the pandemic had a devastating impact on students’ learning abilities nationwide.
Cardona filled much of his response pushing the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus bill, in which he claims school districts committed nearly 60% of the funding received toward addressing lost learning time and hiring more school staff, including teachers, tutors, and counselors while extending learning time through high quality after school and summer learning programs.
Some lawmakers said the results of the latest assessment show the need for school choice.
“Students are entering high school who cannot read,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), the top Republican on the Senate HELP Committee, said in a news release, according to POLITICO. “This is intolerable. Parents should have the power to place their child in a school which is most likely to address the child’s educational need. These scores make the case for school choice better than any other argument.”
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chair of the House Education and Workforce committee, told the news outlet that “education freedom is the key to reversing this trend.”
Both the NCES and the National Assessment Governing Board will host an event Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET to review the test results.