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Downward Trends: Pre- and Post-pandemic NAEP Results

Mark Schneider, Director of IES | September 1, 2022

Mounting evidence shows just how much damage the COVID-19 pandemic and related school closures wreaked on our nation's students. The recently released results for NAEP's Long Term Trend (LTT) assessment for 9-year-old students adds depth to an already dismal picture.

LTT has been administered to 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students for decades. Focused on core skills, LTT in reading was first administered in 1971 and math in 1973, giving us a very long trend line. But for now, I am interested in a much shorter (2 year) time frame. NAEP administered LTT for 9-year-olds between January and March in 2020—the data collection ended within days of the nation's schools shutting down. LTT was administered again in January through March of 2022, making it a nationally representative sample of student performance right before the pandemic and (hopefully) at the end of the nation's misery.

What does LTT show?

To paraphrase an old saw and repeating my comments on other NAEP results: If there wasn't bad news, there would be no news at all. Between the pre-pandemic assessment in 2020 and the post-pandemic assessment in 2022, overall scores went down 7 points in math and 5 points in reading—an unprecedented decline. Tapping into LTT's extraordinarily long trend line, math scores this low were last seen in 1999 and reading scores this low in 2004. Decades of progress wiped out in 2 years.

The declines were not uniform across student groups: not surprisingly, students most in need suffered the greatest declines. In math, students in the lowest decile of performance experienced a 12-point drop, while students in the top decile experienced just a 3-point decline. In reading, the corresponding drop was 10 points for the lowest performers and 2 points for top performers. Our lowest performing students are falling further and further behind.

White students, Black students, and Hispanic students all experienced declines, but the declines in math for Black students were particularly large, where the average math score dropped an extraordinary 13 points. In both reading and math, scores for students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch fell sharply. In math, for example, scores for students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch declined by 8 points, while the scores of their peers from higher-income families declined by 5 points. Students with disabilities, already performing far below students without disabilities, also declined by 8 points.

Please look at the full report on these data and be on the lookout for the release in mid-October of the main NAEP reading and math assessments for 4th and 8th grades, which will give us much more detailed information about the impact of COVID, including state-by-state analysis. In a few months, we will also share the LTT pre-/post-pandemic results for 13-year-old students. I don't know what these results will look like, but almost certainly they will give us more insight into the work that lies ahead for our educators, students, and families.