The release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores showing historic declines in reading and math during the pandemic sent shock waves through North Carolina and across the nation Monday, even though education experts predicted the “sobering” results.
North Carolina fourth-and eighth-grade students’ scores on the math and reading exams given every two years were the worst in two decades, and closely mirror those of students in most states.
State scores on math and reading tests all decreased significantly when compared o 2019, the last time the tests were given. The exams were postponed in 2021 due to the pandemic.
“These findings reflect what our Office of Learning Recovery identified in March of this year regarding the effects of lost instructional time and reaffirm our commitment to working towards recovery and acceleration statewide,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said in a statement.
Truitt cited “strategic investments” in professional development to train elementary school teachers in the science of reading as part of the NC Department of Public Instruction’s efforts to mitigate lost instructional time and learning loss.
“We are confident in the partnerships we’ve developed with local district leaders to help them provide targeted interventions to students who need them the most,” Truitt said. “We have been saying that recovery will take time, and we believe we are on the right track. We are confident that we will see the fruits of our labor in future students’ performance on NAEP.”
The results show that 32% of North Carolina’s fourth graders were at or above proficient in reading in 2022 compared to 36% in 2019. In math, 35% were at or above proficient in 2022 the same percentage as in 2019.
Only 25% of eighth graders were at or above proficient in math in 2022 compared to 37% in 2019. In reading 26% of the state’s eighth graders were proficient in 2022 compared to 33% in 2019.
Nationally, the slide was most acute in mathematics where only 26% percent of students were proficient on exams.
North Carolina’s students also struggled on math exams with average math scores the lowest since 2000.
There were no improvements in mathematics in any state or large urban district, and eighth-grade mathematics scores declined in 51 participating states and jurisdictions since the assessment was last given in 2019, the year before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported.
Eighth-grade mathematics scores did not change in Utah or the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity schools.
“The results show the profound toll on student learning during the pandemic, as the size and scope of the declines are the largest ever in mathematics,” NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr said in a statement. “The results also underscore the importance of instruction and the role of schools in both students’ academic growth and their overall well-being. It’s clear we all need to come together—policymakers and community leaders at every level—as partners in helping our educators, children, and families succeed.”
In reading, 39 percent of North Carolina’s fourth graders scored “below basic” in 2022, which was a 15-year high. Meanwhile, 34 percent of eighth graders scored below the basic achievement level in reading, the highest percentage since 2005.
National education leaders released statements Monday calling the scores troubling but predictable given the challenges presented by the pandemic, which closed schools and forced teachers and students to adapt to remote learning. NAEP is widely considered “The Nation’s Report Card.” It informs the public about how students are performing academically and provides comparisons among states and student groups.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told national reporters that the results are “appalling and unacceptable.”
“This is a moment of truth for education,” Cardona said.
Denise Forte, the interim CEO of The Education Trust, an education advocacy nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps that affect students of color and those from low-income families, said the results are sobering.
Forte said the pandemic-related challenges proved too difficult for many families to overcome, particularly families of color and low-income families whose children were struggling academically before the pandemic.
“Many students — especially Black and Latino students, English learners, and students from low-income backgrounds — disproportionately experienced significant disruptions to their learning due to food and housing insecurity, unreliable access to high-speed internet and lack of computers and other devices, reduced access to student supports and education services, limited time to build strong relationships with their teachers, as well as significant reductions to in-person classroom time,” Forte said.
The nation must target resources to accelerate learning or the effects of the pandemic will be long-lasting and impede students’ ability to “compete in the future economy,” Forte said.
Meanwhile, Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan research and policy group working to modernize the teaching profession, said the nation must not spend time looking for someone or something to blame for the abysmal scores.
“Instead we should be laser-focused on how we make this right for our children,” Peske said. “We know students urgently need our support to recover academically, and we know that teachers are the ones who can make it happen. While the NAEP results confirmed our fears, they also underscore how much schools and teachers matter to students.”
Cheryl Oldham, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president of education policy, said the continued decline in student achievement will have far-reaching economic consequences.
“The solution to this problem requires more than just money,” Oldham said. “This data portends long-term economic losses, which is why it is critical that we focus on our young learners by preparing them to lead the jobs of the future. To do this we need sound policies and better information about what is working for students and what is not.”
NAEP exams are not given to all students. A representative sample of students is selected from most districts. The exceptions for North Carolina are Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Guilford counties, which are part of a nationwide program of 26 urban districts where all fourth-and eighth graders take the exam.