Pa. and N.J. reading and math scores dipped during the pandemic as U.S. saw ‘troubling’ decline
Across the board, the nation saw its steepest declines between the 2019 and 2022 math testing periods since the exam was first administered in 1969.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey students saw declines in math and reading at slightly steeper rates than the national average as scores on the nation’s latest educational benchmark dipped drastically since 2019 — offering a widespread look at the pandemic’s effect on student performance across the United States.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia students’ scores ranked near the bottom of 26 large city school districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, according to findings released Monday.
Known widely as the “nation’s report card,” the NAEP test is typically administered every two years by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), but was delayed in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The NAEP reading and math assessments were given between January and March 2022 to about 446,600 fourth- and eighth-grade students, many of whom were returning to in-person schooling after learning disruptions and closures due to the pandemic.
Across the board, the nation saw its steepest declines between the 2019 and 2022 math testing periods since the exam was first administered in 1969. While only Utah students remained steady with pre-pandemic performance, no state saw improvement since 2019 in eighth-grade math scores.
Both New Jersey and Pennsylvania saw large declines in eighth-grade math scores since before the pandemic, reflecting a national trend that Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, called “particularly concerning,” because “this is the place where a pivotal moment is taking place for students in their academic career.”
Carr said the data, coupled with information collected by the NCES around pandemic learning experiences, showed that the pandemic and learning disruptions have affected every student in the country, while weighing disproportionately on historically underserved students. Across the country, she said, students already struggling in school were less likely than their higher-performing peers to have access to remote digital learning devices and regular interaction with teachers during the pandemic.
Laura Pendergast, a Temple University associate education professor, said the NAEP results released Monday provide more insight on broad patterns, and “the validity depends on how you use them and what you use them for.”
COVID exacerbated existing achievement gaps, she said, and “what should follow is compensatory support resources that are targeted to support the kids who need them the most to make up those gaps.”
That could come in the form of funding for academic interventions, supplemental summer learning programs, and other related measures, she said.
Declining math scores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey
In Pennsylvania, where eighth-grade math students consistently performed better than the rest of the country for more than two decades, scores between 2019 and 2022 plummeted 11 points, putting the commonwealth virtually in line with the national average.
States typically see fluctuations of two or three points between testing periods, Carr said, calling the large drops seen across the country since 2019 “stark” and “troubling.”
Math scores took a bigger hit, she said, because the subject is “more sensitive to schooling.”
“You really need the teachers to teach math,” Carr said. “Reading, on the other hand, is something that parents and community are more comfortable with helping students with.”
In 2022, 62% of Pennsylvania’s eighth-grade math students performed at or above the NAEP’s “basic” level — or showed partial mastery of fundamental skills — down from 70% in 2019. In New Jersey, eighth-grade math scores saw a similarly steep decline, with students at or above the basic level dropping from 76% to 67%.
Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey fourth graders performed above the national average in math, but still saw a decline from pre-pandemic testing. In 2022, 76% of Pennsylvania students scored at or above the basic benchmark, down from 81% in 2019. And 77% of New Jersey fourth graders scored at or above basic level in 2022, sliding from 85% in 2019.
Reading scores mostly slide, while N.J. eighth graders remain constant
Fourth-grade reading scores in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey declined from 2019, while staying above the national average. Eighth-grade reading scores in Pennsylvania slipped to their lowest point since 2003, in line with the nation’s average.
New Jersey eighth-grade students, meanwhile, scored well above the national reading average with 77% reading above basic level and remaining constant with 2019 pre-pandemic scores.
The pandemic’s effect
During the 2020-21 school year, where many districts turned to remote learning, NCES also found that higher percentages of high-performing students had access to key educational resources — including constant access to a computer or tablet, a quiet place to work, teacher availability at least once or twice per week, and in eighth graders, near-daily real-time video lessons with a teacher — compared with their lower-performing peers.
Less than half of the teachers surveyed said they were “quite” or “extremely” confident in their abilities to address pandemic-related learning gaps, NCES found.
Carr said that nothing in the NAEP’s current report card draws a straight line between how long schools remained closed and student achievement, noting that the quality of virtual learning varied across the country. Further research, she said, would be needed to determine a correlation, adding that “it is extremely complex.”
Harry Feder, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a testing watchdog group, warned against using the NAEP results to incite fears over learning loss, calls for more testing, or other dramatic interventions.
“Such reactions are not justified,” Feder said. The scores, he said, “reflected the toll that the pandemic exacted.”
The Camden school system, a state takeover district since 2013, was marking steady gains before the pandemic disrupted learning, said Superintendent Katrina T. McCombs. Camden was among the last districts in the region to fully reopen for the 2021-22 school year. Its high school students spent an entire school year learning virtually, and the district ranked second-highest in South Jersey for chronic absenteeism.
“We knew it would have an impact,” McCombs said. “There’s no replacement for a teacher, a person being in front of our students.”
But McCombs said she had no regrets about keeping schools closed. When neighboring districts began reopening, many parents and some teachers expressed health and safety concerns about returning.
McCombs said the district, which enrolls about 5,800 students in its traditional public schools, has “doubled down” to address learning loss. There are co-teachers and more reading specialists assigned to lower grades, before and after enrichment programs, and individual tutoring, she said.
“We have a huge job to do,” McCombs said. ”We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
National call for change
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called the NAEP exam results “appalling” and “not acceptable,” saying they made plain the pandemic’s impact on student learning and “indicate decades of underinvestment in our students.”
“Today’s results show that children who were already furthest from opportunity before March 2020 and who were most impacted by COVID need the greatest support now to make up for lost ground in reading and math,” said Cardona, who said districts must “redouble our efforts to accelerate student recovery.”
In the coming days, Cardona said the Department of Education will soon issue resources and speaker series for educators, districts, and states for using pandemic funding and tools to address learning loss.
“This is a moment of truth for education,” he said. “How we respond to this will determine not only our recovery, but our nation’s standing in the world.”