Chart showing annual grade 8 reading proficiency rating
A chart showing the annual grade 8 reading proficiency rating from the NationsReportCard.gov. Credit: Screengrab / NationsReportCard.gov
Barth Keck
BARTH KECK

The release of the nation’s NAEP scores last week can tell us several things about the current state of learning in America’s public schools. But unlike politicos and pundits who are using those scores for alarmist social-media fodder, I’d suggest we take a breath and adopt a more reasoned reaction. NAEP – the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called “the Nation’s Report Card” – is a standardized test of math and reading taken every two years by randomly selected fourth- and eighth-grade students (450,000 in 10,000 schools). The results released last week from the tests administered in early 2022 were obviously disappointing; there’s no denying the decline.

“Hardest hit were eighth grade math proficiency rates, which fell 8 percentage points as the raw test score saw its biggest drop in the history of the national testing program,” reported The 74, a nonprofit news agency covering American education.

“In reading, scores fell by 3 points in both fourth and eighth grade,” added Chalkbeat, another nonprofit reporting on education. “Proficiency dipped from 35% to 33% in grade four and 34% to 31% in grade eight.”

Closer to home, the Connecticut scores, as compared to 2019, showed an overall 6% drop in reading and an 8% decline in fourth grade math as well as a 9% drop in eighth grade math, according to CTNJ’s Christine Stuart.

The New York Post summed up the NAEP results rather bluntly: “Student test scores plunged in the US as the COVID-19 pandemic erased decades of academic progress – with math scores recording their largest decrease ever and reading scores at a 30-year low.”

Predictably, some politicians took the opportunity to either criticize public schools or hype their own self-described successful approach to education during the pandemic. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, for example, tweeted the following:

“We kept schools open in 2020, and today’s NAEP results once again prove that we made the right decision. In Florida, adjusted for demographics, 4th grade students are #1 in both Reading and Math.”

Never mind that DeSantis actually closed Florida’s schools in April 2020 for the remainder of that school year. Or that his use of the phrase “adjusted for demographics” is a clever way to hide the fact that “not a single state saw clear gains on any test,” according to the Chalkbeat article.

In fact, upon the release of the NAEP scores, Peggy Carr of the U.S. Department of Education said, “There is nothing in this data that tells us there is a measurable difference between states and districts based solely on how long schools were closed.”

It is simply too soon to draw any conclusions regarding the precise causes of the low NAEP scores. Certainly disruptions in schooling during the pandemic are a major factor, but what disruptions were most to blame? The closing of almost every school in America during the spring of 2020? A sizable portion of students lacking resources such as home computers? Perhaps even the possibility that many students lost the resilience and/or desire for taking lengthy standardized tests? 

If anything, the low NAEP scores demonstrate how the pandemic exacerbated the educational discrepancies in American schools that were present long before COVID.

“Higher-performing students – those who lost less ground,” writes syndicated columnist Eugene Robinson, “were significantly more likely than low performers to have full-time access to a computer or tablet; to have high-speed internet access; to have a quiet place to do their homework; to have a teacher available remotely to help them almost every day; and to have an adult help them in person with their schoolwork at least once or twice a week.”

So rather than beating their chests and proclaiming themselves education gurus based on the results of a standardized test administered on the heels of a pandemic that killed 6.6 million people worldwide, politicians might want to address the problems that have always plagued public education, starting with the inequities from district to district.

Of course, that would mean dispensing with manufactured claims that do nothing but stoke unfounded fears among parents. Sadly, that’s the go-to strategy for many politicians in these polarized times.

Columnist Robinson said it best: “These are the education issues we ought to be grappling with, rather than using schools as battlefields for the culture wars. Enough already with the performative outrage about imaginary critical race theory, a handful of transgender students who want to play sports and what pronouns teachers can and cannot use.”

Yes, the NAEP scores were bad, but that was not unexpected. We knew the pandemic would play a role in their decline. So rather than obsess over the results of a standardized test, politicians, educators, and parents should work together to correct the gaps that have existed in the system for far too long.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 31st year as an English teacher and 16th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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