Nation’s Report Card Shows Largest Ever Decline in Math

Courtesy of Chia Yin Yang (Flickr CC0)

The first assessment of the nation’s students following the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the largest decline in math since the National Assessment of Educational Progress began testing in 1990.

The National Center for Education Statistics conducts the NAEP, often referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card.” It samples fourth and eighth-grade students from every state, testing their knowledge and comprehension of reading and math. This year the testing was administered to about 450,000 fourth and eighth graders across more than 10,000 schools. This year’s report was the first conducted since 2019 and revealed how COVID may have negatively disrupted learning for the nation’s students.

Math Declines Across the Country

Eighth-grade math scores were down in 49 of the 50 states, including double-digit reductions in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Math proficiency dipped from 34 percent in 2019 to 26 percent amongst eighth graders, and was only marginally better for fourth graders at 36 percent, down from 41 percent. The national average decreased by five points for fourth grade and eight points for eighth grade, reflecting the lowest scores in math in 17 years.

Additionally, reading took a hit, declining in more than half of states. Only about one in three students meet standards for proficiency.

“The results in today’s nation’s report card are appalling and unacceptable,” said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “How we respond to this will determine not only our recovery but our nation’s standing in the world.”

The declines are understood to be at least partially due to the disruption in schooling that occurred starting in 2020. The pandemic forced most schools to close for in-person learning and shift teaching to online-only formats. Even as schools returned to in-person or a combination of in-person and online, other factors such as teacher shortages likely have been adding to the downslide in education.

Political Differences

With mid-term elections right around the corner, politicians are already using these results to attack their opposition. Some have blamed the low scores on stricter responses to the COVID outbreak. The results, however, don’t indicate a strong correlation between pandemic response measures and drops in scores.

NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr said, “There’s nothing in this data that tells us that there is a measurable difference in the performance between states and districts based solely on how long schools were closed.” She added that “remote learning looks very differently all across the United States.”

The numbers appear to support Carr’s statement. States like Florida, one of the first states to re-open schools, posted scores slightly above the national average decline. Florida’s math declines were pretty comparable to scores in what was one of the most COVID-restrictive states. In California, Los Angeles schools were closed longer than any other district in the country, and still scored the only significant improvements in eighth-grade reading comprehension.

Seeking Solutions

In 2021, Congress approved the “American Rescue Plan,” which included $123 billion designated for education. This comes to roughly $2400 per student in the U.S. The ARP is “for sure the largest one time investment in public education in this country.” according to Georgetown University research professor Marguerite Roza.

The ARP is not spread evenly to every school district, but rather it prioritizes districts with the highest needs. According to a survey of school superintendents, the funds are being used to bolster summer learning, increase staff hours, improve technology and student devices, hire tutors, and renovate school facilities. Most districts do not “have a concerted plan for math,” according to Roza.

Overall, research suggests that the simplest solution to increase students understanding of math is for them to spend more time learning it. The research also shows intense tutoring and extended math classes are most beneficial to struggling students.

Written by Seth Herlinger


CNN: ‘Nation’s Report Card’ shows new evidence of Covid-19’s devastating impact on US children’s education.

New York Times: Math Scores Fell in Nearly Every State, and Reading Dipped on National Exam.

NPR: Schools Are Getting Billions In COVID Relief Money. Here’s How They Plan To Spend It.

Top and Featured Image courtesy of Chia Yin Yang (Flickr CC0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *