Pandemic Impact: Reading Scores Show Largest Decline Since 1990

The National Center for Education Statistics study of COVID's effect revealed a significant drop in reading and math scores for 9-year-olds. Lower-performing students saw the steepest decline.

Reading and math achievement suffered due to COVID, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

In a study of the pandemic's impact on reading and math for 9-year-olds, results found that the disruption to education severely impacted learning, particularly for those students who were struggling before the pandemic hit.

In 2022, the NCES conducted a special administration of the National Assessment for Educational Progress's long-term trend reading and mathematics assessments for 9-year-old students specifically to look at student achievement during the COVID-19 pandemic. In reading, average scores dropped five points compared to 2020. Math scores saw a seven-point decline.

The results show the largest average score decline in reading since 1990, and the first-ever score decline in mathematics, according to NCES. The precipitous decline in reading scores didn't hit all students, demographic groups, or geographic regions the same, however. 

For example, in reading, the average score for students attending city schools was about the same as compared to 2020, and the score for students who attended schools in the West was not significantly different either, according to the report. Asian and Native American students had no significant difference in reading or math scores.  

Lower-performing students, however, were significantly impacted. In reading, scores for students in the 25th percentile dropped eight points. Students reading in the 10th percentile fell 10 points.

"COVID-19 disruptions may have exacerbated many of the challenges we were already facing," NCES commissioner Peggy G. Carr said in a statement. "We know that students who struggle the most have fallen further behind their peers."

There were fewer declines at the higher performance level (75th percentile) in reading than in math. Looking at the racial/ethnic groups, while scores declined for white, Black, and Hispanic students at the 75th percentile in math, there were no significant changes across racial and ethnic groups at this performance level in reading.

The tests were given to a national sample of 14,800 9-year-olds and compared with the results of the same age group which took the test in early 2020, just before the pandemic closed school buildings across the country.

Read the entire report here.

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