US math skills suffered their biggest-ever setback during COVID, with just 26% of 8th graders meeting the mark

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Multiracial group of students sitting at desk in classroom - stock photo
Multiracial group of students sitting at desk in classroom – stock photo

  • Results from the Nation’s Report Card found drastic declines in math scores for fourth and eight graders.
  • Just 26% of eight graders are proficient in math, down from 34% in 2019.
  • Education Sec. Cardona said that while the pandemic is partly to blame, years of disinvestment in education is a major factor.

The nation now has concrete data on the extreme learning loss students have suffered during the pandemic.

On Monday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, was released, which assessed the learning progress of fourth and eighth graders since 2019. The results were stark — math scores for eighth graders dropped in nearly every state, with just 26% of them proficient in the subject, down from 34% in 2019. For fourth graders, the average math score fell by five points, and reading scores for both grades fell by three points. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during Monday remarks that these findings should be “an urgent call to action.”

“The results released today from the National Assessment of Educational Progress are appalling, unacceptable, and a reminder of the impact that this pandemic has had on our learners,” Cardona said in a statement. “The data also represent a call to action for the important work we must do now for our students—especially those who have suffered the most during the pandemic.” 

“This once-in-a-generation virus upended our country in so many ways — and our students cannot be the ones who sacrifice most now or in the long run,” he added. “We must treat the task of catching our children up in reading and math with the urgency this moment demands.”

According to the report, Utah was the only state where math declines were not statistically significant, and places like Maryland and Washington DC experienced the most major declines in the subject. National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner Peggy Carr told reporters on Monday that these are the “largest declines in mathematics we have observed in the entire history of this assessment.”

But, as Cardona noted during his Monday remarks, these results cannot be solely attributed to the pandemic, saying that “the data prior to the pandemic did not reflect an education system that was on the right track.  The pandemic simply made that worse.  It took poor performance – and dropped it down even further.”

He called out lack of investment in education under previous administrations. Cardona said that in the coming days, his department will inform educators on how they can use funding for schools from the 2021 American Rescue Plan stimulus package to address learning loss and launch a series on tools to accelerate students’ learning in math and reading.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have expressed concerns with these results. Top Republican on the House education committee Virginia Foxx said in a statement that remote learning has been largely to blame for the drop in test scores, saying that “students have fallen behind due to no fault of their own.”

“Our students were failed by an education bureaucracy that insisted on shutting them out of the classroom, even after the evidence proved it was safe for them to return,” Foxx said.

But Carr said there are other factors at play when looking at this data, and remote learning cannot be entirely to blame.

“We cannot find anything in this data that says that the results we are looking at can be solely, primarily attributable to differences in how long students stayed in remote learning,” Carr said. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t have an effect.”

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