Like recent test scores of younger students, math and reading performance of 13-year-olds in the United States hit its lowest level in decades, according to test scores released today by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold- regular federal exam.
The last time math performance was this low for 13-year-olds was in 1990. In reading, it was 2004.
Performance has declined significantly since the 2019-2020 school year as the coronavirus pandemic devastated the nation’s education system. But the downward trends reported today began years before the health crisis, raising questions about a decade of disappointing outcomes for American students.
The federal standardized test, known as the NAEP, was administered last fall and focused on basic skills. The 13-year-olds scored an average of 256 out of 500 in reading and 271 out of 500 in math, down from average scores of 260 in reading and 280 in math three years ago.
Performance declined across lines of race, class, and geography. But in math especially, vulnerable kids, including Black, Native American, and low-income students, have suffered the biggest declines.
Why it matters: 13-year-olds have missed a crucial moment in their education.
A large body of research shows that the majority of American children have experienced academic struggles during the pandemic. It was also clear that low-income students of color were hardest hit by school closures and distance learning, which lasted more than a year in some districts.
The latest findings from the NAEP are the latest major release of data from the federal government on learning loss in a pandemic. The scores add to educators’ understanding of the challenges facing children of different ages and demographics.
The 13-year-olds who took this version of the NAEP exam last fall were 10 years old — and in fourth or fifth grade — when the pandemic began. Many were old enough to participate in distance learning without the minute-by-minute adult assistance that younger children often needed.
But the ages of 10 to 13 are also a crucial period for mastering fundamental skills, from multiplication to recognizing a character’s feelings in a short narrative passage.
« Bottom line: These findings show that there are worrying gaps in the basic skills of these students, » said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which gives the NAEP exam. « This is a large-scale challenge facing the nation. »
Context: The test allows for comparisons across years.
In the highly decentralized American education system, NAEP is one of the few consistent tests provided across state lines over many years, making results easily comparable.
Exam scores carry no rewards or punishments for students, teachers, or schools, making them particularly useful for research purposes, as there is less incentive to cheat or teach the test.
However, some education experts believe there is too much focus on the NAEP. They point out that exam content, in many cases, has little overlap with the material actually taught in classrooms across the country.
A student survey provided with the test yielded other interesting results that will keep educators interested. The percentage of 13-year-olds enrolled in algebra is down to 24% from 34% in 2012. In some districts and states, especially Californiathere has been a push to standardize math education by placing fewer eighth graders in advanced math.
The percentage of 13-year-olds who reported reading for enjoyment also decreased. Last fall, 31% said they never or almost never read for fun, up from 22% in 2012.