US children suffer sharp drops in test scores

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America’s schools have wiped out two decades of progress in math and posted their biggest decline in reading scores since 1990

Student test scores in US elementary schools have dropped to levels not seen in decades, marking an historic educational setback that observers have blamed largely on classroom shutdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released on Thursday, showed that reading scores dropped the most since 1990, and math scores fell for the first time in the five-decade history of the study. The declines between 2020 and 2022 wiped out decades of progress in math and reading proficiency.

The report, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” marks the first national assessment comparing test results before the pandemic with current performance. It’s based on tests taken by 9-year-olds in early 2022 and early 2020 – just before most of America’s schools were shut due to Covid-19.

Children were deprived of in-person learning for more than a year in some cities. New York City schools, for instance, weren’t fully reopened until 18 months after their first Covid-19 lockdown. In Los Angeles, parents sued the teachers union and schools for “holding children hostage” to their political agenda. Among other demands, the union insisted that police be defunded and new wealth taxes be imposed before they returned to classrooms.

“Actual science didn’t support school closures,” said US Representative Guy Reschenthaler, a Pennsylvania Republican. “Democrats were too busy following political science to care. We lost decades of gains in reading and math scores as a result.”

However, the school closings weren’t the only cause of declines in test scores, said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. “Our own data reveal the pandemic’s toll on education in other ways, including increases in students seeking mental health services, absenteeism, school violence and disruption, cyberbullying, and nationwide teacher and staff shortages.”

Children who were already struggling with reading and math suffered the biggest setbacks in proficiency. While the average reading score fell by five points from 2020’s level, the decline was twice as severe for students at the 10th percentile, meaning those who performed worse than 90% of the class. The same trend was evident in math scores, with the overall average falling seven points and the 10th percentile dropping 12 points.

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