Last Updated On: October 13th, 2023
Every year, the Institute of Education Sciences (a division of the Department of Education) releases a National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. The report assesses educational preparedness in core subjects, such as math and English, and allows government officials, school districts, and other relevant parties to shape educational policy. It also allows us to compare educational progress and readiness from year to year, or state to state.
This year’s assessment revealed some troubling trends: math scores fell in nearly every state, and reading scores declined in roughly half of them. Such declines offset years of progress in these areas and suggested that the pandemic’s effects on our educational system may be long-reaching and severe. Schools in low-income areas tended to suffer from even more significant score decreases. While students of all achievement levels tended to slip, students who were already struggling or in the bottom quartile of scorers tended to continue doing so, widening the gap behind them and their peers.
While school closures undeniably had an impact, experts cautioned against attributing any one state’s relative struggles or successes to their closure policies. These results often indicated little difference between school districts that opened quickly and districts that remained remote for longer. For example, California and Florida both declined slightly less than national averages, despite their reputations as polar opposites in terms of closure policies, since California schools remained remote far later than most states, while Florida worked to open early.
What We Still Don’t Know
While there were no clear-cut correlations between state or school district policies and test scores, it does seem clear that, on a macro level, the cause of these declines was the pandemic. Even so, due to the profusion of pandemic-induced modifications, the factors most directly influencing proficiency declines remain nebulous. Nevertheless, experts and policy-makers are poring through the data in the hopes that it will point them towards actionable measures.
Not only did the pandemic disrupt school schedules and curricula, but the switch to remote learning also clearly didn’t work for many students. This was especially true for those without the resources to access digital materials, or the ability to self-motivate despite a lack of supervision or encouragement. However, even schools that remained open faced disruptions. Teachers missing school had to be replaced on short notice, creating disruptions. Students quarantining faced long absences, while others confronted hardship at home. For example, stress, changes in financial status, and personal trauma all have markedly negative impacts on learning. Students who were anxious, had parents who lost their jobs, or lost a loved one to COVID-19 encountered significant obstacles to maintaining their academic performance.
Why Math Declined More Than Reading
One of the more striking results in the assessment was the significant difference between math and reading results. While reading results were poor, they were significantly better than those in math, a disparity that held true across nearly every geographic or socioeconomic factor. There are a few likely explanations for this difference. As one expert explained to The New York Times, math scores are “more dependent on what is being taught in school, whereas reading scores can also be driven by ‘what happens in the home.’” For example, parents are more likely to influence a child’s reading ability by reading with a child, having books or magazines in the home, or by teaching their children vocabulary through conversation. While informal math learning can happen at home (and parents should look for opportunities to present such learning experiences, particularly to younger children), research has shown that they tend to occur less frequently.
Additionally, many parents dislike or fear math and pass on this anxiety to their children. As the journalist Clive Thompson has noted, 75% percent of students have heard a parent or other adult express negative opinions about math, and research has shown that parents who feel anxiety around math tend to transfer this fear to their kids. Parents with these attitudes towards math are also unlikely to provide the encouragement or enrichment that can be crucial to furthering a child’s motivation to comprehend a subject. They are less likely to be seen enjoying math in the way that a child might see a parent devouring a novel or admiring a painting in a museum. Also, parents are unlikely to point out the utility of math in everyday life, or to identify the professional and academic opportunities available to those who are proficient in math.
Ways To Address These Discrepancies
Such issues are difficult to address on a policy level, but policy-makers may start by looking at how math is taught. For instance, many capable students can feel as though they lack math aptitude when they are simply missing antecedent information, struggling during timed tests, or having trouble with how material is being presented. While other subjects rely on previous knowledge and timed tests, math is particularly reliant on both. For instance, a student who struggles to understand The Grapes of Wrath in freshman English may be able to analyze The Great Gatsby during sophomore year, but a student who misses key information in Algebra One is going to struggle in Algebra Two. Similarly, while a student with test anxiety might have trouble with their chemistry midterm, they likely have lab reports and other ways to boost their grade—opportunities that are less common to math curriculum.
On an individual level, parents should work to avoid passing on their own math anxiety to their children. Avoid disparaging the subject, or expressing anxiety around it, and work to present positive impressions of math. This could mean encouraging a younger child to practice counting or to learn the names of shapes. It might also entail a visit to a science museum, or a discussion on “how scientists learned about outer space,” or “how engineers built such impressive machines.” It also might mean getting help for children who need it. Often, LA Tutors 123 works with extremely capable students who nevertheless missed key math principles early in their academic careers or internalized their parents’ anxiety about the subject. When presented with the proper resources, or even a confidence boost, the same students found themselves excelling in math classes or on standardized tests.
What It Means for You
The Nation’s Report Card presents general trends, rather than specific insight on how you or your child is performing in school. However, as score declines and their causes were nation-wide, it could be worth evaluating whether you or your child suffered any setbacks as a result of the pandemic. Were there classes where you or your student lost learning time due to unforeseen circumstances? Are there areas in which they are missing key skills, or where scores or grades have declined? Do you sense lingering anxiety stemming from the pandemic or the return to in-person learning? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then taking steps to address these issues immediately is advisable. Minor educational hiccups can be overcome with the right support, but, left unaddressed, learning gaps or anxiety issues can have a far-reaching impact on educational and professional performance.
Fortunately, even before the release of the Nation’s Report Card, schools and districts were aware of these issues and allocating the resources to remedy them. Many curricula have already incorporated much-needed review periods or provided extra tutoring for students who need it. It is worth looking into how your school is responding to these issues so that you can take advantage of services offered—or take steps to supplement your child’s education on your own.