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A new study reveals some pretty alarming statistics.

It goes without saying that the pandemic wreaked havoc on almost every aspect of our lives, and its effects are still being felt today — from the economy to our physical and mental health. And it’s not just adults who are still reeling from COVID-19; children have been impacted in unique ways. For instance, an August 2021 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that anxiety and depression in children doubled since the start of the pandemic. Now, an exam known as “the nation’s report card” is illuminating how the pandemic impacted students’ test scores across a variety of subjects, and the results are concerning.

On Monday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress was released; it sampled close to 450,000 fourth and eighth graders in over 10,000 schools in the 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and 26 participating districts between January and March 2022. The findings seem to indicate that school closures hurt students, but researchers warned against trying to make a clear-cut case, since school closures varied by state, even within some school districts — and the relationship between schools staying open and performance wasn’t always direct.

What did the results say?

First, the bad news: Math scores for eighth graders were down in early every state since the start of the pandemic, with just over one-quarter (26 percent) being considered proficient — that’s a significant drop from math scores in 2019, where 34 percent of eighth graders were proficient in math. Fourth graders saw declines in math as well, with 36 percent showing proficiency, a five percent decrease from the 2019 results. That said, fourth graders seemed to have fared a bit better, showing declines in 43 states/jurisdictions showed declines, compared to eighth graders, who showed declines in 51 states/jurisdictions — the largest number of states and jurisdictions with declines since 2003.

The good news is that, even with the pandemic, students are still performing better in math than they did in 1990 — fourth grade math scores are up 23 points and eighth grade scores are up by 12 points.

Reading scores changed less dramatically since the pandemic began; for fourth and eighth graders, the average reading score went down three points since 2019. That said, fourth graders’ average reading score was the lowest it’s been since 2005 and was not significantly different than 1992 — 30 years ago and today, the average reading score was 217 out of 500. And at 260 points in 2022, eighth graders’ reading assessments were lower than every year going back to 1998 and didn’t change significantly since 1992, either.

How did inequality play a role?

The pandemic highlighted inequalities in many areas, and unfortunately, education was one of them: The Nation’s Report Card found that the gap between the highest and lowest performing students widened for both math and reading. Additionally, score gaps in fourth graders’ mathematics widened between White students and their Black and Hispanic peers, more so than they did in 2019. However, in eighth grade reading, there weren’t significant declines among Black and Hispanic students, while scores for white students declined four points on average.

And the realities of virtual learning may have exacerbated declines — a survey included in the test found that only half of fourth graders who performed low in math had access to a computer all the time in the 2020-2021 school year, while 80 percent of high-performing fourth graders had reliable computer access. 70 percent said they had a quiet place to do schoolwork at least some of the time, compared to 90 percent of high-performing math students.

What does it mean?

The findings are not exactly uplifting.

“I want to be very clear: The results in today’s nation’s report card are appalling and unacceptable,” said Miguel Cardona, the secretary of education. “This is 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.”

Last year, the federal government invested $123 billion into schools, requiring districts to spend at least 20 percent of the funding they received on academic recovery. The funding is set to expire in 2024 and could become a talking point in the presidential race, and maybe even the midterm elections. And some experts are saying the 20 percent of money earmarked for academic recovery isn’t enough.

“The results show the profound toll on student learning during the pandemic, as the size and scope of the declines are the largest ever in mathematics,” Peggy G. Carr, NCES Commissioner, said in a press release. “It’s clear we all need to come together—policymakers and community leaders at every level—as partners in helping our educators, children, and families succeed.”

Carr added that simply returning to 2019 levels of math and reading is not enough.

“Despite the countless obstacles that students faced over the course of the pandemic—including instability at home, decreased access to resources, teacher shortages, cyberbullying, and an uptick in violence once schools reopened — we also see pockets of remarkable resilience across the country, particularly in the country’s urban districts,” said Commissioner Carr. “But academic recovery cannot simply be about returning to what was ‘normal’ before the pandemic, as the pandemic laid bare an ‘opportunity gap’ that has long existed. It also showed how every student was vulnerable to the pandemic’s disruptions. We do not have a moment to waste.”

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