COVID-era school shutdowns caused historic learning losses for kids, DOE report shows

The Education Department released its “National Report Card,” which showed the “largest score declines” since the federal government began tracking these metrics in 1990.

Updated: October 25, 2022 - 12:16am

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Pandemic-era shutdowns caused historic learning loss for grade school students, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Department of Education.

The Education Department released its “National Report Card,” which showed the “largest score declines” since the federal government began tracking these metrics in 1990. Math took the hardest hit, but reading scores did not fare well either.

For perspective, fourth grade math scores had progressively increased by 28 points since 1990, but then dipped 5 points since 2019, taking scores back to the early 2000s levels.

For eighth graders, math scores dropped eight points from 2019, erasing a significant amount of the the gains made since 1990.

“In 2022, the average fourth-grade mathematics score decreased by 5 points and was lower than all previous assessment years going back to 2005; the average score was one point higher compared to 2003,” the Education Department’s report said. “The average eighth-grade mathematics score decreased by 8 points compared to 2019 and was lower than all previous assessment years going back to 2003. In 2022, fourth- and eighth-grade mathematics scores declined for most states/jurisdictions as well as for most participating urban districts compared to 2019.”

The decline was largely nationwide, with not a single state seeing its math scores improve since 2019, though a few states were able to hold the line and fend off a large score decrease.

“In 2022, average mathematics scores at fourth grade declined in all four census-defined regions of the country – Northeast, Midwest, South, and West. Scores were lower by 7, 3, 5, and 4 points, respectively, compared to 2019,” the report said. “Looking at state/jurisdiction performance for fourth-graders in public schools in 2022, average scores were lower in 43 states/jurisdictions and were not significantly different in 10 states/jurisdictions. This is the largest number of states/jurisdictions with score declines in fourth-grade mathematics going back to 2003. Among the states/jurisdictions with score declines, 13 scored lower than the national average score for public school students in 2022; 17 had average scores that were not different from the national public average; and 13 scored higher.”

The national average reading scores, which have not seen the same progressive improvement since the early 1990s, decreased by 3 points nationally compared to 2019 for both fourth and eighth grade.

“At fourth grade, the average reading score was lower than all previous assessment years going back to 2005 and was not significantly different in comparison to 1992,” the report said. “At eighth grade, the average reading score was lower compared to all previous assessment years going back to 1998 and was not significantly different compared to 1992. In 2022, fourth-and eighth-grade reading scores declined for most states/jurisdictions compared to 2019.”

Critics have blasted the pandemic-era school shutdowns, pointing to the learning loss suffered by students and the medical research which showed children were largely safe from the worst of COVID-19.

“Classroom closures failed our students and crushed their academic progress,” said Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah. “I introduced the RECOVER Act to fight this learning loss crisis by empowering parents to help get their kids back on track.”

Others said this was the price that had to be paid to keep people safe during the pandemic.

“This was to be expected,” Senior Fellow at the Ford Foundation and former President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said. “It was the price for keeping as many teachers, school workers, children [and] their families alive. Now let's roll up our sleeves [and] get to work on it. Children suffer learning loss in war zones, from sickness, displacement."