Reading and math scores hit 19-year low in Massachusetts

A student studies in the Healey Library after classes.

Massachusetts has lost the top spot in math and reading scores, claims an organization known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” They also suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic is the root cause. Scores have been dropping steadily since 2017, but accelerated from 2019 to 2022, fueled by the pandemic and disruptions in learning routines.

According to new data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Massachusetts’ scores in reading and math exams no longer hold the highest position when it comes to fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading. It was reported that reading scores had sunk to what they were back in 1992, and nearly four in ten eighth graders failed to grasp basic mathematical concepts.

“It is a serious wake-up call for us all,” Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the Education Department, stated. “In NAEP, when we experience a one or two point decline, we’re talking about it as a significant impact on a student’s achievement. In math, we experienced an eight-point decline—historic for this assessment,” she added. “We want our students to be prepared globally for STEM careers, science and technology and engineering,” she said. “This puts all of that at risk. We have to do a reset. This is a very serious issue, and it’s not going to go away on its own.” (1)

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona stated that schools need to re-strategize their efforts using the billions of dollars that Congress had provided to help them recover these scores. “Let me be very clear: These results are not acceptable,” he said. Cardona also added: “If looking at these outcomes doesn’t make us want to double down on system-wide academic recovery and use federal funds to provide more opportunities for students—if this doesn’t have you fired up to raise the bar in education—you’re in the wrong profession.”

Harry Feder, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, warned against giving too much importance to the NAEP statistics and stated, “demonstrate what educators and parents already know—the pandemic was bad for kids. Now that children are back in school, in-person learning has gone back to normal.” (2)

Specifically, math scores came out less than satisfactory for eighth graders, with 38 percent earning scores that were defined as “below basic,” which is less than 2019 scores, where the percentage was only 31 percent of students scoring below that level. Several inequities were also reported in a constantly progressing gap between higher and lower-performing students. Scores dipped steeply among the lower-performing students, which contributed to the growth of this gap between struggling students and the rest of their peers. (1)

To support these statistics, every state observed a decline in at least one subject, while every region reported that test scores slid steeply. Some districts observed scores drop more than 10 points, with Cleveland seeing the largest drop, falling 16 points in fourth-grade reading and 15 points in fourth-grade math. Baltimore and Tennesee’s Shelby County are also observing similar drops. “This is more confirmation that the pandemic hit us really hard,” said Eric Gordon, chief executive for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. The school systems have already been re-strategized to help students recover by offering meticulous summer school periods and after-school tutoring. (1)

Overall, testing critics caution against giving too much importance to exams, such as NAEP. While there is no doubt that the skills it aims to measure are critical, students who take more extended periods to master reading are seen to drop out and end up in the criminal justice system. Also, the eighth grade can be considered a crucial period for a student to develop fundamentals of mathematics, science and technology to be applied later in their careers.

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