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2022 NAEP Results Show Over 20 Years of Learning Progress Lost

In just two years of COVID-19 learning disruptions, over two decades of students’ learning progress was lost.

By Morgan Wood1851 Franchise Contributor
SPONSORED 1:13PM 10/18/22

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a national test given to a representative sample of students nationwide to measure learning trends across the country. Because many states have slightly different end-of-year assessments and learning expectations, the NAEP allows officials to collect information and analyze trends in a statistically accurate way.

In 2022, the fourth-grade students who participated in the NAEP averaged a score of 215 in reading, a five-point drop, and 234 in math, a seven-point drop. This was the first-ever score drop in math since the assessment began and the most significant fall in reading comprehension since 1990. 

Scores on both assessments have been on a steady upward trajectory since before 2000, indicating that the nation’s students have demonstrated increased mastery year-over-year for decades. After the educational challenges that accompanied the pandemic, that trend has been broken.

There Is Still an Equity Gap

When looking at the NAEP report, it is important to recognize that the reported trends and decreases are reflective of a representative sample, and some sub-demographics have much more dramatic shifts. Historically speaking, students who are financially secure tend to perform better than those who are not, and white students tend to score higher than children of color.

In the 2022 math report, no demographic subgroup saw year-over-year improvement. This is the first time no group saw improvement. Groups that have been traditionally underserved saw their learning equity gap continue to widen. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students of color, students with learning differences, and English language learners all saw drops in scores that were larger than other groups. 

“The phenomenon of growing outcome gaps is again apparent in the post-COVID results, though it takes a slightly different form,” Kevin Mahnken wrote for The74. “At all performance levels across both subjects, nine-year-olds experienced statistically significant declines in their scores; but even with the identical downward trajectory, struggling students lost so much ground that disparities still expanded.” 

“In reading, nine-year-olds scoring at the 90th percentile of all test takers in 2022 lost two points compared with their predecessors in 2020. But students scoring far below the mean, 10th percentile fell by 10 points,” he added.

Over One-Third of Students Finished the 2021–2022 School Year Below Grade Level

High-level NAEP data is helpful in understanding just how impactful the pandemic has been compared to the growth and events that have occurred in recent decades, but the immediate need should not be ignored, either. While some progress was made in the 2021–2022 school year, over 33% of students still finished the year below grade-level expectations. 

Many public schools have leveraged high-dosage tutoring to support students in making up this lost ground, but those plans have not been perfectly executed, either. In many cases, public school teachers are being asked to provide this additional tutoring support, and staffing shortages and teacher burnout complicate the execution of the programs.

This leaves administrators and district officials to manage federal funding carefully and utilize it in a way that will have lasting impacts before those funds expire. Federal recovery funds have been distributed to districts and are approved for uses such as after-school and summer supplemental learning, but schools will only have access to this money through August of 2024. 

Unfortunately, many students are expected to take between three and five years — or longer, as this time frame increases as students age — to experience full academic recovery. Not only does this mean that the need will more than likely outlast the opportunity for federal funding, but it also indicates that students in upper grades may graduate high school before they can catch up.

Though There Is a Big Push Ahead for Educators, All Hope Is Not Lost

Hearing things like “20 years’ worth of progress has been lost” and “the need will outlast the funding” can be discouraging, especially amidst conversations about teacher shortages and burnout. While there is certainly a need among educators and their students, children are resilient and can recover if we can give them the tools to do so.

While some individuals and leadership outside the classroom are pushing for adjusted teaching tactics or brand-new curricula, experts encourage everyone to trust their educators. Teachers are incredibly passionate about their students and can implement small personalizations like tiered versions of the same lesson to engage all ability levels in a way that will meet their students’ needs.

Before the pandemic, a single classroom could include an ability range of up to six grade levels. Now, that number is as high as nine. Rather than pushing for radicalized change, we simply need to let our teachers teach. Engaged educators are incredibly informed about the students in their classrooms, including the unique needs that each one has, and attempting to implement a standardized overhaul when there is such a range present could make things more challenging.

As parents, grandparents and family members of struggling students look on from the outside and school administrators and district-level leadership analyze the situation, advocating for teachers in a way that respects their knowledge and will empower them to do what they love is one of the best possible approaches.