Published on Psychology Today
September is here and family households are abuzz with getting back to school for the fall. And despite the ever-lingering presence of COVID-19 in our lives, most children are going back to school in person and unmasked, restoring some sense of normalcy to the fall season nationwide for the first time in nearly three years. But somewhat perfectly timed with our return to school, several news outlets are reporting on a new nationwide assessment by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, of reading and mathematics scores. The report shows that scores have gone down since 2020—the biggest drop in scores that we’ve seen in 30 years. The Washington Post describes the drop as a “plunge to levels unseen for decades,” and the New York Times claims that the pandemic has “erased two decades of progress in math and reading.”
This is clearly not the news we were hoping for as children start a new school year, and it paints a startling picture of what we will put on the shoulders of our teachers in the upcoming months. The big question is: Are our kids really that far behind in school? And what does this mean for their long-term learning outcomes?
To answer this question, we need to first talk about what standardized tests do—and don’t—really measure. Standardized tests can be useful in some ways because they are, well, standardized. That means the same test is given to students in different schools, from different backgrounds, and in this case, from different states, to assess math and reading knowledge. You can’t really get the same kind of unbiased information from students’ grades, since students have different teachers, who work at different schools, who teach in different districts, and live in different states. Standardized tests evaluate students all on the same playing field, so the scores can be used to help teachers and districts figure out which students and which schools might need the most help.
They are also sometimes predictive of future learning success, at least in the short term, but this can be controversial in terms of whether they tell us anything about learning or academic success in the long-term. For example, research has shown that the SAT can predict how well students do in college, but only in their first year (e.g., Hannon, 2014). And other studies have shown that despite the fact that schools vary so widely across the US, GPA is a much better predictor of college success, even in the first year, than tests like the SAT and ACT (e.g., Allensworth & Clark, 2020; Kurlaender, & Cohen, 2019).
In other words, test scores don’t necessarily tell us whether our children will be successful in school in the long run. On top of that, the students evaluated in the NAEP study were only 9-year-old children who were mostly in 4th grade, so the study is limited in what it can tell us about how students in other grades might be doing. On top of that, it is important to note that the NAEP shows that math and reading scores in the children they’ve tested have been steadily increasing since the 1970’s, and there have been drops before, for example, from 1988 to 1990, and from 1980 to 1984. Indeed, as the Washington Post points out, the math scores they found this year are roughly equivalent to what they observed in 1999, and the reading scores were similar to the scores they found in 2004. Given all of these factors, the suggestion that the pandemic “erased two decades of progress in math and reading” might be a bit of an overstatement.
But that doesn’t mean we are out of the woods. If we use these scores like they are meant to be used—as a diagnostic tool to see who needs the most help—they can be quite useful. There were several nuances to the report that are very informative. For example, in reading, there was no drop in scores at all from 2020 to 2022 for children who attended city schools; the drop was mostly there for suburban schools. On top of that, the losses were most prominent for the lowest performing students, and students from underrepresented backgrounds, suggesting that the achievement gap that we already knew was there might have been widened by the pandemic.
On top of that, of the students who reported learning remotely during the 2020-2021 school year, the ones that performed best in reading and math according to the NAEP also had the best access to resources to help them learn remotely; including a computer, laptop, or tablet, a quiet place to work, and a teacher who was available to help them. These students were also the most confident in their ability to get help if they needed it.
There are several important take home messages here. The first is that all is not lost, and while a standardize test like the one the NAEP reported can tell us something about learning, it doesn’t tell us everything. Indeed, the value of learning and being in the classroom can’t just be measured by a single test, and not every child is a good test taker. However, it is abundantly clear that the 1—2 years of remote learning caused by the pandemic wasn’t great for our kids, and this test does help confirm that. But kids can learn remotely if they have the right resources, and the kids who suffered most were the ones who were already at a disadvantage and didn’t necessarily have the resources they needed to get through these unprecedented times in terms of learning. So, what do we do? We can work to make sure that disruptions like the ones caused by the COVID-19 pandemic don’t widen the gaps that already exist in our education system, and that if we do have to go back to remote learning, that our kids—all of our kids—have the resources they need to be successful. It also tells us that these students might need more resources now to help them make up for the time they lost during the pandemic.
Finally, if there is one positive take home message here, it’s that in-class learning is incredibly important, and we can’t take for granted the value of the work that our teachers and schools are doing when they are spending nearly 40 hours a week in the classroom with our children. On top of that, teachers are under a great amount of pressure to make up for the perceived losses in learning our children have potentially experienced in the past 2 years. So, as we move into the new school year this fall, let’s remember how important our teachers are, and be incredibly thankful that they are back in the classroom again.
Photo: Creative Commons/Public Domain
Allensworth, E. M., & Clark, K. (2020). High school GPAs and ACT scores as predictors of college completion: Examining assumptions about consistency across high schools. Educational Researcher, 49(3), 198-211.
Hannon, B. (2014). Predicting college success: The relative contributions of five social/personality factors, five cognitive/learning factors, and SAT scores. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 2(4), 46.
George, D. S. American students’ test scores plunge to levels unseen for decades. The Washington Post, September 1, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/09/01/student-test-scores-plunged-pandemic/
Kurlaender, M., & Cohen, K. (2019). Predicting College Success: How Do Different High School Assessments Measure Up?. Policy Analysis for California Education, PACE.
Mervosh, S., The Pandemic Erased Two Decades of Progress in Math and Reading. The New York Times, September 1, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/01/us/national-test-scores-math-reading-pandemic.html
NAEP Results: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/highlights/ltt/2022/