Georgia students held their ground in reading and somewhat in math, according to the latest results of a highly regarded federal test that had not been administered since 2019, the year before COVID-19 shut down schools and disrupted society.
The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card,” provides the clearest picture yet of the educational damage inflicted during the pandemic, at least in fourth and eighth grades in reading and math, the areas tested.
Reading by fourth grade is essential for future academic success, and a mastery of math in eighth grade is equally important for students aiming for careers in engineering or other technical fields.
The news for America, and to some extent for Georgia, is discouraging, particularly in math. The national average score declines were the largest recorded in that subject over three decades of testing.
“The results in today’s nation’s report card are appalling and unacceptable,” said U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in a press briefing tied to Monday’s release of the results. He called it “a moment of truth” for education: “How we respond to this will determine not only our recovery but our nation’s standing in the world.”
Georgia’s average scores dropped across the board; however, the declines in three of the four grades and subjects were negligible. There was “no significant change” reported for both reading and math in fourth grade or for reading in eighth grade. To the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP tests, those scores were flat.
Georgia’s score for eighth grade math, however, fell significantly — by 8 points. That wasn’t unusual: Eighth grade math scores dropped significantly in every state but Utah.
Though it appears Georgia minimized learning setbacks more than other states did, it ended up in the same place as the rest of the nation. The state’s average scores, which include only public schools, were within a point or two of the national public school average in every area.
Overall, it means COVID-19 brought the rest of the country down to Georgia’s level.
And the U.S. educational system was by no means a beacon before COVID-19, Cardona said. “The pandemic simply made it worse. It took poor performance and dropped it down even further.”
NAEP is given to a representative sample of students across the country, with more than 100,000 students tested in each grade and subject last winter.
The tests are used as an external measure against states’ own standardized tests. What came to be called an “honesty gap” emerged as the proficiency rates reported by states exceeded what was reported by NAEP.
The 2022 scores show a gap remains in Georgia.
NAEP reported that less than a third of Georgia’s fourth and eighth grade students were proficient or better in reading, but the 2022 Milestones say just over half of fourth grade students read at or above grade level while 70% of eighth grade students did.
Grade level performance and proficiency aren’t the same measure. But fewer than half of Georgia students in fourth and eighth grades scored proficient or better on their 2022 Milestones English tests, which measure some of the same knowledge and skills measured by NAEP. Similarly, the percentage of students deemed proficient or better in math by NAEP was lower than what the Georgia Milestones reported: by 10 percentage points in fourth grade and 12 percentage points in eighth grade.
In addition to reporting on the states, NAEP measured performance in 26 large urban school districts with high concentrations of Black, Hispanic or low-income students. That included Atlanta.
The scores for Atlanta Public Schools were below both Georgia’s and the combined results for the other urban school districts. Atlanta’s scores dropped in three areas — reading in fourth grade and math in grades four and eight. They basically held steady in eighth grade reading, dropping 1 point. But the 8-point drop in fourth grade reading was high compared with the other urban districts.
The varied performance between states, as well as by an urban district such as Atlanta, can be explained by countless factors, the rate of poverty not the least of them.
Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, said researchers can use the new data to explore what drove better or worse performances in states that were otherwise similar demographically.
The way they responded to the pandemic — whether they stuck with virtual schooling longer or rushed back in person — will likely be a factor, though he said such information won’t be helpful absent a future catastrophe of similar scale and duration.
But, he said, the scores could be used to determine whether differing outcomes correlate with the way summer school was implemented or with teacher training or curriculum.
The tests used to be administered in odd-numbered years, but COVID-19 knocked them off their biennial cycle, delaying the 2021 administration until last winter and spring.
So the release now comes just ahead of an election.
“You hate to see this politicized, though, you know, I imagine it will be,” Petrilli said. “Let’s be honest. A lot of this is going to be about helping us to judge the decisions policymakers have made over the last couple of years.”
Ken Zeff, who was an interim superintendent of Fulton County Schools and now heads a school improvement group called Learn4Life Metro Atlanta, said he hopes the low scores prompt policymakers, and the public, to roll up their sleeves and pull out their wallets.
“If we’re really committed to building a more equitable society, this is where we start writing the checks,” said Zeff, whose organization partners with metro Atlanta school systems, businesses and nonprofits to increase student achievement. He called it a moral imperative, not to mention a looming economic crisis.
“Look at the NAEP scores,” Zeff said. “Ten years from now, that’s your workforce, and your customers. Who’s going to buy your products?”
Public school average scores on the 2022 NAEP and the change from 2019:
Fourth grade math: 235, down 3 points
Fourth grade reading: 216, down 2 points
Eighth grade math: 271, down 8 points
Eighth grade reading: 260, down 2 points
Fourth grade math: 235, down 5 points
Fourth grade reading: 216, down 3 points
Eighth grade math: 273, down 8 points
Eighth grade reading: 259, down 3 points
Fourth grade math: 224, down 7 points
Fourth grade reading: 205, down 8 points
Eighth grade math: 263, down 6 points
Eighth grade reading: 254, down 1 point
LARGE CITY AVERAGE
Fourth grade math: 227, down 8 points
Fourth grade reading: 209, down 3 points
Eighth grade math: 266, down 8 points
Eighth grade reading: 255, no change
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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution