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WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic spared no state or region as it caused historic learning setbacks for America's children, erasing decades of academic progress and widening racial disparities, according to results of a national test that provides the sharpest look yet at the scale of the crisis.
Across the country, math scores saw their largest decreases ever. Reading scores dropped to 1992 levels. Nearly four in 10 eighth-graders failed to grasp basic math concepts. Not a single state saw a notable improvement in their average test scores, with some like Iowa simply treading water at best.
Those are findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the "nation's report card," which tested thousands of fourth and eighth-graders across the country. It was the first time the test had been given since 2019, and it's seen as the first nationally representative study of the pandemic's impact on learning.
"It is a serious wake-up call for us all," Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Education Department, said in an interview. "In NAEP, when we experience a 1- or 2-point decline, we're talking about it as a significant impact on a student's achievement. In math, we experienced an 8-point decline historic for this assessment." Researchers usually think of a 10-point gain or drop as equivalent to roughly a year of learning.
For Iowa, the test found students were treading water in three of the four metrics:
- There was no significant difference in fourth-grade math scores between 2019 and 2022. Iowa was one of nine states to show no notable change in that time, including the neighboring states of Wisconsin, Illinois and Nebraska.
- Similarly, fourth-grade reading skills showed no significant change in that time, as was the case with 20 other states including neighbors Wisconsin and Illinois.
- Eighth-grade reading scores also showed no notable change in Iowa, as was the case with 16 other states plus the District of Columbia.
- However, eighth-grade math scores in Iowa declined. Only one state — Utah — showed no significant change in the period. No states showed improvement.
Even though Iowa fourth-graders were only holding their own on math, they still did significantly better than the nation as a whole. Iowa is one of 16 states — including neighbors Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and South Dakota — that outperformed the nation in fourth-grade math.
“Iowa was the first state in the nation to reopen its schools during the pandemic, bringing students back to the classroom for in-person learning in August 2020 — not to make headlines or for political gain, but because we believed it was the best thing to do for our children’s education, stability, and overall well-being,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement. “Now, the first pandemic-era math and reading results reported today by the National Assessment of Educational Progress prove we did the right thing.”
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which keeps track of scores since 1992, those metrics for Iowa’s fourth and eighth-graders have been slightly declining for at least three of the testing periods. Fourth-grade math and eight-grade reading, for instance, last reached their peak in 2013.
The pandemic upended every facet of life and left millions learning from home for months or more. The results released Monday reveal the depth of those setbacks, and the size of the challenge facing schools as they help students catch up.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said it's a sign that schools need to redouble their efforts, using billions of dollars that Congress gave schools to help students recover. "Let me be very clear: these results are not acceptable," Cardona said.
The test is typically given every two years. It was taken between January and March by a sample of students in every state, along with 26 of the nation's largest school districts. Scores had been stalling even before the pandemic, but the new results show decreases on a scale not seen before.
While reading scores dipped nationally, math scores plummeted by the largest margins in the history of the test, which began in 1969.
No part of the country was exempt. Every region saw test scores slide, and every state saw declines in at least one subject.
Several major districts saw test scores fall by more than 10 points. Cleveland saw the largest single drops falling 16 points in fourth-grade reading and a 15-point decline in fourth-grade math.
"This is more confirmation that the pandemic hit us really hard," said Eric Gordon, chief executive for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. To help students recover, the school system has beefed up summer school and added after-school tutoring.
"I'm not concerned that they can't or won't recover," Gordon said. "I'm concerned that the country won't stay focused on getting kids caught up."
The results show a reversal of progress on math scores, which generally had made big gains since the 1990s. Reading, by contrast, had changed little in recent decades, so even this year's small decreases put the averages back to where they were in 1992.
Most concerning, however, are the gaps between students.
Confirming what many had feared, racial inequities appear to have widened during the pandemic. In fourth grade, Black and Hispanic students saw bigger decreases than white students, widening gaps that have persisted for decades.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.