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National teen test scores slip for the first time — and it's not due to Covid

The nation’s 13-year-olds are less proficient in math and reading than they were almost a decade ago, according to data collected just before the start of the pandemic and released Thursday.

It’s the first time these scores — gathered as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s long-term trend study — have dropped in either subject in the 50-year history of the test. And it revealed a concerning pattern: The students who struggle the most with the exam have fallen further behind, a worrisome result that suggests learning loss exacerbated by the pandemic could be catastrophic.

Peggy Carr, the head of the Education Department agency that administers the test, said she was stunned when she first saw the decline in math scores.

“Are you sure?” Carr recalled telling her staff when she spoke with reporters on Wednesday. “I asked them to double-check.”

The ‘concerning’ numbers: Math scores fell furthest among students whose performance ranked in the 10th and 25th percentiles, meaning test takers with the lowest math scores in 2020 did worse than the students who struggled the most when the test was last administered in 2012. The data also shows the achievement gap between white and Black test takers widened.

Nationally, math scores for 13-year-olds fell on average by five points while reading scores declined an average of three points. Nearly 9,000 13-year-olds across 450 schools took the test between October 2019 and December 2019.

“None of these results are impressive,” said Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. “They’re all concerning. The math results were particularly daunting.”

The center also released data on how 9-year-olds performed, but there were no significant changes in scores on average compared to 2012.

Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, cautioned that the test results are just a snapshot, but still called the declines among 13-year-olds “sobering” and “bad across the board.”

One reason the 13-year-olds’ scores may have fallen while the 9-year-olds’ scores stayed flat is the timing and impact of the Great Recession, Petrilli said. The older test takers were toddlers when the 2008 financial crisis began, so they experienced the worst of that era’s school funding crisis as young learners.

“These students were entering kindergarten when things were really bad,” he said. “Their families were experiencing unemployment and poverty at home and the impact of lower school spending in the classroom. It’s impossible to know if that’s the answer, but I think it’s part of the story.”

The next round of NAEP long-term trend assessment data will be made public in 2022. It will capture learning loss caused by the pandemic, and Petrilli said he expects the scores to be “horrendous.” Carr said she expects proficiency levels to decline but couldn’t project by how much.

Big shift in reading habits: Along with the test results, the education statistics center also released test takers’ responses to survey questions about their reading habits and coursework.

A lower percentage of 13-year-olds reported regularly reading for fun almost every day than the share of students who said they did so a decade ago. And students who say they read more got higher scores. Similarly, the share of students enrolled in algebra and pre-algebra fell, and enrollment in regular math was associated with lower scores.

Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, said the survey results reflect the opportunity gap between low-income Black and Latino students, and their wealthier, white peers. The disadvantaged students’ districts are still too often focused on standardized test prep, which can counterintuitively lead to poor performance.

“We need to make learning more compelling and more interesting to kids. We need to get them more deeply engaged,” Noguera said. “That’s how we create self-motivated learners. That’s how we lift these scores.”

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