September 22, 2023

Test scores show that despite efforts to recover, American students are falling further and further behind

Students across the U.S. fell further behind academically last school year despite extensive efforts to help them recover from pandemic learning setbacks, according to an analysis of test scores released Tuesday.

The research by NWEA, a nonprofit organization that administers standardized tests, comes in as the 2024 deadline quickly approaches for schools to spend the last of $190 billion in federal pandemic aid money.

There are ways schools can make better use of their limited resources and time to encourage learning, says Chase Nordengren, the group’s lead researcher for instructional strategies. He said schools could group students according to their needs and provide targeted instruction, for example by adjusting groups as individuals progress.

“We have tried to get the message across that this is a multi-year, if not decades-long, recovery period and that it will require a fundamental rethinking of the ways we not only educate students, but also think about how students are grouped and how we think about their learning,” he said.

The study used data from about 6.5 million students who have taken the MAP Growth assessment in reading and math since the start of the pandemic. Those numbers were compared to academic growth data from three years before the pandemic.

The results this year — the third full school year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit — are worse in some ways than last year, when the NWEA analysis showed that students largely made academic progress that paralleled their pre-pandemic growth, said Karyn Lewis, director of the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA, and the study’s co-author.

“And because kids are making gains at rates that are below pre-COVID trends, that means we’re not closing those performance gaps. We’re actually expanding them,” Lewis said.

With historic sums of money sent by the federal government, schools have expanded tutoring, summer learning programs, and other recovery efforts.

But the analysis showed that the average student would still need the equivalent of an extra 4.1 months of schooling to catch up on reading and 4.5 months for math. Black and Hispanic students, meanwhile, would take even longer to catch up — about a month or more. And “that really just brings them back to the pre-pandemic levels of inequality that we already saw,” Lewis said.

The study echoes the findings of federal test results released last month, which showed that math and reading scores among American 13-year-olds had fallen to their lowest levels in decades.

Lewis could only speculate why it was so bad.

“I think maybe we’ve neglected to fill in the gaps of the last two years in a rush to get back to grade content and we’re seeing the impact of that, kids can’t keep up because they’re some basic pieces are still missing.”

One of the few positive findings was in the class that had just completed third grade. Those students were in kindergarten when the pandemic began, an age that made virtual learning challenging, and their slow recovery caused alarm in an NWEA study published in December. It found that those prospective fourth graders experienced the greatest pandemic-related learning losses in reading.

But now the group’s latest analysis of year-end test scores shows they’ve made above-average gains. Lewis described it as “a bit of a head scratcher”.

Lewis wonders if families are aware of how bad the situation is and if schools are willing to be innovative enough to address the problem.

“Schools are doing the right things,” she said. “They’re just not doing enough of the right things. And I think that’s because we’ve underestimated how persistent the effects of COVID will be on children.”


The Associated Press education team is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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