COVID-19 pandemic | 20 years of progress in math and reading erased

National test results released last Thursday in the United States starkly show the devastating effects of the pandemic on American schoolchildren, with the performance of 9-year-olds in math and reading falling to levels 20 years ago. .

Posted at 12:00 a.m.

Sarah Mervosh
The New York Times

This year, for the first time since National Educational Progress Assessment tests began tracking student achievement in the 1970s, 9-year-olds have lost ground in math and results in reading experienced their biggest decline in more than three decades.

These declines affect almost all ethnic communities and all income levels and are markedly more pronounced for the lowest performing students. While the best performing students (from 90e percentile) recorded a modest drop – 3 points in mathematics –, pupils in the 10the lower percentile lost 12 points in math, or four times as much.

“I was surprised by the scope and magnitude of the drop,” said Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal agency that administered the exam earlier this year. . A national sample of 14,800 9-year-olds was tested and compared to results from tests taken by the same age group in early 2020, just before the pandemic hit the United States. United.

The highest and lowest performing students already showed gaps before the pandemic, but today, “the weakest students are falling faster,” said the DD Carr.

In mathematics, black students lost 13 points, against 5 points for white students, which widened the gap between the two groups. Research has documented the profound effect of school closures on low-income students and on Black and Spanish-speaking students, in part because their schools were more likely to continue remote learning for longer periods of time.

Declining test scores mean that while many 9-year-olds can show partial understanding of what they read, fewer can infer a character’s feelings from what they read. In mathematics, students may know simple arithmetic concepts, but fewer of them can add fractions with a common denominator.


These failures could have serious consequences for a generation of children who must go beyond the basics in primary school to thrive later.

“Students’ test scores, even from grades 1, 2, and 3, are really very predictive of how well they will do later in school, and their educational trajectories in general,” said Susanna Loeb, director of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute, which focuses on educational inequality.

The main reason for concern is the decline in the results of the lowest performing children. Being so far behind could lead to academic disengagement, making it less likely to graduate from high school or attend college.

Susanna Loeb, director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is considered the benchmark for educational testing. Unlike state tests, it’s standardized across the country, has remained consistent over time, and doesn’t seek to hold individual schools accountable for results, which experts say makes it more reliable.

” Work to be done “

The test results gave insight into just one age group: 9-year-olds, who are usually in third or fourth grade. (Additional results, for fourth and eighth graders, will be released later this fall by each state.)

“This is a test that can speak bluntly to federal and state leaders, plain and clear, about the magnitude of the job that needs to be done,” said Andrew Ho, a Harvard education professor and expert in educational testing, who once served on the board that oversees the exam.

Over time, reading scores, and especially math scores, have generally trended upwards or remained stable since the test was first used in the early 1970s. a period of strong growth from the end of the 1990s to the mid-2000s.

But over the past 10 years or so, student achievement has stabilized rather than improved, while gaps have widened between the lowest performers and the highest performers.

Then came the pandemic, which caused schools across the country to close almost overnight. The teachers gave their lessons using Zoomand students stayed home, striving to learn online.

In some parts of the country, the worst of the disruptions were short-lived as schools reopened in the fall. But in other areas, especially in major cities with large populations of low-income students and students of color, schools remained closed for many months, and some did not fully reopen until last year.

According to Ho, the national tests tell the story of a “decade of progress”, followed by a “decade of inequality”, and then the “shock” of the pandemic, which came as a double whammy.

“It erased progress and exacerbated inequality. Now we have our work cut out. »

Vicious circle

He estimates that losing one point on the national exam is equivalent to about three weeks of learning. This means that a high-performing student who lost 3 points in math could catch up in just 9 weeks, while a low-performing student who lost 12 points would need 36 weeks, or nearly 9 months, to catch up. its backwardness — and would always be behind its more advanced peers.

There are signs that students, back in school, have started to learn at a normal pace again, but experts say it will take more than normal school days to close the gaps created by the pandemic.

Janice K. Jackson, who led Chicago Public Schools until last year and is now a board member of Chiefs for Change, representing education and school district officials across the State, the results should be a “rallying cry” to get students back on track.

She called on the federal government to come up with big ideas, citing the Marshall Plan, the US initiative to help rebuild Europe after World War II.

“It is so dramatic for me,” she said, adding that politicians, school leaders, teaching unions and parents should put aside the many disagreements that have erupted during the pandemic. And come together, to help students recover.

This article was originally published in the New York Times.

Learn more

  • 122 billion US
    The amount the federal government has earmarked to help students recover is the single largest investment in American schools, and at least 20% of that money must be spent on remedial education.

    SOURCE : The New York Times

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