Test scores show historic COVID setbacks for kids across US (2023)

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 provide 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 simply treading water at best.

Those are the findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress — known as the “nation’s report card” — which tested hundreds of thousands of fourth and eighth graders across the country this year. 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 wakeup call for us all,” Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the 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.”

(Alex Brandon | AP) Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press about the National Assessment of Education Process, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in Washington.

Researchers usually think of a 10-point gain or drop as equivalent to roughly a year of learning.

It’s no surprise that children are behind. 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.

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 NAEP 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.

In both math and reading, students scored lower than those tested in 2019. But while reading scores dipped, math scores plummeted by the largest margins in the history of the NAEP test, which began in 1969.

Math scores were worst among eighth graders, with 38% earning scores deemed “below basic” — a cutoff that measures, for example, whether students can find the third angle of a triangle if they’re given the other two. That’s worse than 2019, when 31% of eighth graders scored below that level.

No part of the country was exempt. Every region saw test scores slide, and every state saw declines in at least one subject.

Utah’s math scores for eighth graders dropped from 285 to 282 — making it the only state to not have a statistically significant decline in the subject. The same occurred with eighth grade reading scores.

But fourth graders in the Beehive State dipped from 240 to 235 in math, and from 219 to 216 in reading. Both of those are considered marked drops.

Several major districts in other states saw test scores fall by more than 10 points. Cleveland saw the largest single drop, falling 16 points in fourth-grade reading, along with a 15-point decline in fourth-grade math. Baltimore and Tennessee’s Shelby County also saw precipitous declines.

“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.”

(Matt Rourke | Associated Press) Desks are spaced apart ahead of planned in-person learning at an elementary school on March 19, 2021, in Philadelphia. 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 provide the sharpest look yet at the scale of the crisis.

The results show a reversal of progress on math scores, which had made big gains since the 1990s. Reading, by contrast, had changed little in recent decades, so even this year’s relatively 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.

Inequities were also reflected in a growing gap between higher and lower performing students. In math and reading, scores fell most sharply among the lowest performing students, creating a widening chasm between struggling students and the rest of their peers.

Surveys done as part of this year’s test illustrate the divide.

When schools shifted to remote learning, higher performing students were far more likely to have reliable access to quiet spaces, computers and help from their teachers, the survey found.

The results make clear that schools must address the “long-standing and systemic shortcomings of our education system,” said Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Los Angeles schools and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets the policies for the test.

“While the pandemic was a blow to schools and communities, we cannot use it as an excuse,” he said. “We have to stay committed to high standards and expectations and help every child succeed.”

Other recent studies have found that students who spent longer periods learning online suffered greater setbacks. But the NAEP results show no clear connection. Areas that returned to the classroom quickly still saw significant declines, and cities — which were more likely to stay remote longer — actually saw milder decreases than suburban districts, according to the results.

Los Angeles can claim one of the few bright spots in the results. The nation’s second-largest school district saw eighth-grade reading scores increase by 9 points, the only significant uptick in any district. For other districts, it was a feat just to hold even, as achieved by Dallas and Florida’s Hillsborough County.

Testing critics caution against putting too much stock in exams like NAEP, but there’s no doubt that the skills it aims to measure are critical. Students who take longer to master reading are more likely to drop out and end up in the criminal justice system, research has found. And eighth grade is seen as a pivotal time to develop skills for math, science and technology careers.

For Carr, the results raise new questions about what will happen to students who appear to be far behind in attaining those skills.

“We want our students to be prepared globally for STEM careers, science and technology and engineering,” she said. “This puts all of that at risk. We have to do a reset. This is a very serious issue, and it’s not going to go away on its own.”

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner and AP education writer Bianca Vázquez Toness in Boston contributed to this report.

The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


How did COVID affect kids grades? ›

The test results show a substantial decline in student learning in both English language arts/literacy (ELA) and mathematics between the 2018–19 and 2021–22 academic years. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and economic conditions in California have contributed to significant changes in enrollment in schools across the state.

How did COVID affect students learning? ›

Test results across the board, from the NAEP to interim assessment data, show that declines have been larger in math than in reading . And kids who were already struggling fell further behind than their peers, widening gaps with higher-achieving students.

When did standardized testing become an issue? ›

Standardized testing has been a part of American education since the 19th century, but the widespread reliance on standardized testing in schools in the US is largely a 20th-century phenomenon. Immigration in the mid-19th century contributed to the growth of standardized tests in the United States.

Is education declining in the US? ›

Nationwide, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022, with declines even after returning to in-person classes, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The slide in the college-going rate since 2018 is the steepest on record, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

How COVID-19 affects children socially? ›

COVID-19 shut down social activities. One recent study compared early childhood development in children born during the pandemic versus those born in the previous decade. Children born between March 2020 and June 2021 had lower scores in language, motor skills and thinking.

Why we should get rid of standardized testing? ›

Standardized tests scores are not predictors of future success. Standardized tests can only, at best, evaluate rote knowledge of math, science, and English. The tests do not evaluate creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, artistic ability, or other knowledge areas that cannot be judged…

What are pros and cons about standardized testing children? ›

PRO: They help teachers to identify areas for improvement. CON: Standardized tests cause stress and anxiety for children. PRO: They help keep schools accountable to policymakers. CON: Teachers 'teach to the test' which leads to the lower-quality rote learning method of teaching.

Why are standardized tests criticized? ›

Standardized tests reduce the richness of human experience and human learning to a number or set of numbers. This is dehumanizing. A student may have a deep knowledge of a particular subject, but receive no acknowledgement for it because his or her test score may have been low.

What are the negative effects of grades on students? ›

On the negative side, grades can be used to compare and rank students, leading to feelings of inferiority or superiority. Grades can also create competition among students rather than cooperation. And grades can actually demotivate students, especially those who struggle and wonder why they should keep trying.

How did COVID affect students socially? ›

There were few opportunities to see friends in person or engage in extracurricular activities. At the same time, many students also were contending with the pandemic's frightening impacts on their family's health and welfare, such as illness, the death of a relative or neighbor, and economic hardship.

What was the most challenging aspect of online learning? ›

Here are some of the biggest challenges of online education today:
  • Lack of Motivation in Students.
  • Infrastructural Problems.
  • Digital Literacy and Technical Issues.
  • Lack of In-person Interaction.
  • Lack of EdTech and Online Learning Options for Special Needs of Students.
  • Course Structure and Quality.
Jun 22, 2023

Which president started standardized testing? ›

1965: Use of standardized testing adopted as part of national education plan. Standardized testing got national support when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as part of his War on Poverty campaign.

Did No Child Left Behind start standardized testing? ›

In 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act was created there was such a great emphasis placed on standardized testing that it is now crucial to the success of American students to critically examine the testing system and correct any flaws that may be present.

Has standardized testing decreased? ›

“The vast majority of colleges went test-optional in 2020-2021 and many have continued that policy, [so] the number of students taking standardized tests declined,” Ms. Vagenas, a college counselor at Bolles, explained.

What country is number one in education? ›

World Education Rankings
#CountryEducation Index
4New Zealand0.93
97 more rows

What rank is USA in education? ›

The U.S. ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with higher education (42%). have an upper secondary education are just 29% -- one of the lowest levels among OECD countries. enrolment rate.

Which country has the best education system in the world? ›

Switzerland. One of the best education systems in the world can be found in Switzerland. This small, mountainous country has several top-ranked universities, as well as a rigorous system of higher education that prepares students for successful careers.

What are long term effects of Covid for kids? ›

I, along with other researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital, recently published a study of adolescents (ages 10-19) with these long-lasting symptoms. This is called long COVID. The two most common long-lasting or returning symptoms include tiredness (fatigue) and shortness of breath.

Do kids have long term effects from Covid? ›

Kids might have other long-term COVID-19 symptoms such as: Trouble sleeping. “Brain fog,” or trouble thinking or concentrating. Chest pain.

What are the social and psychological effects of coronavirus disease COVID-19? ›

A great number of people have reported psychological distress and symptoms of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress. And there have been worrying signs of more widespread suicidal thoughts and behaviours, including among health care workers. Some groups of people have been affected much more than others.

Which country has no standardized testing? ›

Finland has no standardized tests. Their only exception is something called the National Matriculation Exam, which is a voluntary test for students at the end of an upper-secondary school (equivalent to an American high school.)

Why should tests be banned? ›

Standardized testing should be banned in schools because test scores are not an accurate representation of a student's capability, knowledge, and qualification. When a student is taking a standardized test, it's not testing them on their knowledge of a certain subject or skill.

Is test anxiety real? ›

Test anxiety can be a real problem if you're so stressed out over a test that you can't get past the nervousness to focus on the test questions and do your best work. Feeling ready to meet the challenge, though, can keep test anxiety at a manageable level. Use a little stress to your advantage.

How do standardized tests affect students mental health? ›

This can cause many mental issues as students are studying for long periods of time and stressing about a test. According to soeoline.com, “Standardized testing causes headaches, sleep problems, depression, anxiety, stress and attendance issues”. Standardized testing is also, in some cases, ineffective.

Do standardized tests improve learning? ›

Standardized exams can show student improvement over time by taking the same tests over time. In addition, student test scores can also be easily compared to each other to show changes in progress. Ensure that all educational stakeholders are held accountable.

Does standardized testing cause stress? ›

Stress and its effect on the brain might be one reason that students from low-income neighborhoods tend to fare worse on high-stakes tests. Children are affected by standardized testing, with some seeing their cortisol levels spike on testing days, and others seeing it drop, which might lead them to disengage.

How did online learning affect students? ›

Online learning may cause low-efficiency performance in their academic years. Plus, students lack many activities which are important for the proper growth of their mental health, like field sports, debate activities, and events. games, contests, and projects.

What is the quit rate for teachers? ›

New teachers are leaving their jobs within 5 years of teaching in percentages as high as 30%. 8% of US teachers are quitting their careers, while only 3% to 4% of teachers in other countries are quitting. A report showed that 29% of teachers quit their job due to personal and lifestyle reasons.

How does speech anxiety affect students performance? ›

Due to the lack of confidence, students may feel that they won't be able to give the speech or perform well in the presentation even before beginning the task. Negative thoughts of failure and rejection start creeping in. Performance anxiety is very common among students who have stage fright.

Is it better for kids to have distance learning or be in school? ›

Effectiveness. While some studies have found in-person classes to be more effective on average than online classes, some students do better with virtual learning than in-person courses. However, students who struggle with in-person education tend to have an even more difficult time learning online.

Did COVID increase online learning? ›

Online enrollment rose to 170% of its pre-pandemic level in 2020-21, then nudged up further to 176% in 2021-22, according to numbers from 10 states.

How effective was online learning during COVID? ›

Related: How higher education lost its shine

Much of the pre-pandemic research into online higher education concluded that students in online programs did worse than students in in-person courses, with lower grades, higher dropout rates and poorer performance in subsequent classes.

What is the greatest challenge that students face today 2023? ›

The Biggest Challenges facing Higher Education in 2022/2023
  • Introduction. ...
  • Climate Change and Sustainability. ...
  • Increased Focus on Applied Learning and Graduate Employability. ...
  • Falling Enrolment Rates.
Mar 8, 2023

What's the biggest challenge today's students face? ›

Mental Health and Wellness Issues

The combination of classes, work commitments, extracurricular activities, and relationships can be difficult for people to handle emotionally. Other students might experience fatigue, depression, or insomnia due to excess stress. Physical issues may also present themselves.

What is a negative aspect of online learning? ›

Disadvantages of Online Learning
  • Online Learning May Create a Sense of Isolation. Everyone learns in their own manner. ...
  • Online Learning Requires Self-Discipline. ...
  • Online Learning Requires Additional Training for Instructors. ...
  • Online Classes Are Prone to Technical Issues. ...
  • Online Learning means more screen-time.
Dec 26, 2022

What is glossophobia? ›

What are the most important facts to know about glossophobia? Glossophobia is a very common phobia characterized by a strong fear of public speaking. Individuals with glossophobia may avoid speaking in public, as they typically experience fear and anxiety when speaking in front of a group of people.

Why do students struggle with anxiety? ›

Concerns about not having enough friends, not being in the same class as friends, not being able to keep up with friends in one particular area or another, interpersonal conflicts, and peer pressure are a few of the very common ways kids can be stressed by their social lives at school.

Why are students prone to anxiety? ›

Some of these academic factors include difficulty of studying new language, midterm and final exams, and curriculum. Some other students also face anxiety related to different reasons such as being ill or disabled students. Also some students feel discrimination which affects them negatively.


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