Opinion: Parents can’t ignore math, reading declines on federal test

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

No one doubts that the COVID-19 pandemic hurt student learning. Now, much-anticipated test scores today from the National Assessment of Educational Progress pinpoint where impacts were greatest.

Given every two years, NAEP tested a representative sample of 446,000 students from 10,800 schools in 2022 to enable an aerial view of the pandemic’s effect on the academic performance of U.S. students. While sweeping, the view isn’t inspiring, especially in math. The national average score declines in mathematics for fourth and eighth graders from 2019 to 2022 were the largest recorded in the subject in three decades.

Georgia fared better than most states, only seeing a plummet in eighth grade math of 8 points. Scores slid in fourth grade math and in reading in both grades, but the drops were deemed negligible.

Last year’s eighth graders are now in high school, and the basics they missed in middle school will affect them, said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. NCES, the statistical wing of the U.S. Department of Education, administers the NAEP tests.

“Eighth grade is the gateway to more advanced mathematics course taking. They are missing these important skills they need to prepare them for STEM careers,” she said. “We need to be concerned about getting these students back on track so they can be prepared for global competition.”

ExploreScores on ‘nation’s report card’ stable for Georgia but hold bad news

Known as the “nation’s report card,” NAEP was postponed from 2021 to this year by the pandemic, delivering the bad news amid a midterm election where Georgia voters will choose a governor and a U.S. senator.

I doubt NAEP scores will sway many votes.

Few parents muse about NAEP scores, largely because their own kids aren’t among the sample test takers. When parents get riled about test scores, it’s usually in the context of classroom and state tests and college admissions exams.

Should parents care more about NAEP? No, said Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. “They should care instead about indicators about how their own — our own — kids are doing.”

However, Petrilli said NAEP is a barometer of the success of America’s education system and holds implications for the nation, explaining, “Just like we should be alarmed when we see negative trends on, say, life expectancy, so, too, should we be concerned if student achievement goes in the wrong direction.”

Parents may not fret over NAEP outcomes because they place greater faith in their children’s report cards. And those report cards tell a different tale.

“Despite all of the news around learning loss, 92% of all parents — regardless of race or income or education level — still believe their children are at grade level,” said Bibb Hubbard, president of Learning Heroes, which promotes parental engagement. “The further you get away from a parent’s kitchen table, the less likely they are to pay attention. As long as 84% of parents are seeing their children bring home A’s and B’s, they are not going to sign their child up for tutoring or extra instructional time.”

A May report by the ACT college exam company found grade inflation increased during the pandemic, as shown by climbing high school grades yet falling ACT scores. Those findings echo NAEP’s own High School Transcript Study. Released in March, the analysis showed high schoolers were taking more advanced courses and earning record-high grade-point averages while posting no gains or even losing ground on national exams.

As a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, education researcher Martin West said the results are a call to action to districts to address learning loss from COVID-19. Districts would likely argue they’ve responded to that call with tutoring, after-school programs and summer classes.

“There are some clear exceptions, but my sense is that recovery efforts in most places have been more tepid than I might have expected, in part because most parents don’t seem all that concerned,” said West, academic dean and Henry Lee Shattuck professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“I hope that widespread parent activism is not essential to generate a vigorous policy response to pandemic losses,” West said. “But I also think that most policy responses won’t be very effective unless elected officials and other education leaders succeed in drawing parents’ attention to the problem. My hope is that the NAEP results can be part of that effort.”

In a call with reporters, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush urged more attention to NAEP. “This is not just nerdy education policy stuff,” said Bush. Math fluency and higher level skills are critical for college and job success, said Bush, and shrugging off learning gaps or lowering expectations means “a lot of dreams are going to be shattered.”