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The largest decline of reading scores in 30 years happened during the pandemic, new study finds

Recent national test results displayed the impact of school closures during the pandemic

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Desks sit empty at Parkview Elementary in Salt Lake City on the first day of school using remote learning on Sept. 8, 2020.

School desks sit empty at Parkview Elementary in Salt Lake City on the first day of school using remote learning on Sept. 8, 2020. Pandemic school disruptions resulted in the largest drop in reading achievement in 30 years, according to newly released national test scores on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. The data is from 9-year-olds who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2020 and 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Test results revealed a devastating setback in American education — among 9-year-old students, a new study found the largest decrease in reading scores in 30 years and the first decrease of math scores since the test scores began to be tracked.

The Associated Press reported that the National Center for Education Statistics found these dramatic setbacks, which have “erased two decades of progress in American test scores.”

The drop in test scores comes after school closures and shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, an outbreak that the world is still trying to recover from.

AP reported that the average math score for 9-year-old students fell 7% between 2020 and 2022, while the average reading score fell five points. These declines hit all regions of the country, but were the most concerning for students of color, according to AP.

The pandemic widened the gap between Black and white students by eight percentage points, according to the study from the NCES. Shutting down schools limited access for some families, according to the Pew Research Center.

The New York Times reported that some schools only experienced short-lived shutdowns while others, such as highly populated urban cities with “large populations of low-income students and students of color,” were closed for several months.

Students without reliable internet and proper resources were more disadvantaged and vulnerable during the the pandemic. Pew Research Center found that 1 in 5 teens lacked reliable access to a computer or internet connection and that Black and Hispanic families, as well as low income families, were the most affected by the push for remote schoolwork.

In addition to access, young students were cut off from routine, teachers, hands-on instruction and collaborative learning. According to the Times, these setbacks could have intense consequences for this generation of children.

Susanna Leob, director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, told the Times that this setback could lead to disengagement in school, increasing the likelihood of dropping out of high school and college.

So, are students going to be able to get back on track and recover from these setbacks?

U.S. News and World Report reported that to help young students catch up, it will take the combined effort of parents and teachers. “We should all feel an extreme sense of urgency around getting kids back on academic track,” Dan Goldharber, director of the American Institutes for Research, said an interview with U.S. News.

Harvard education professor Dr. Andrew Ho told the Times that losing a single point on the national exam translates roughly to three weeks of learning. That means a student that may have lost 12 points would need 36 weeks to catch up. Experts are saying that even though school is fully back, it will “take more than the typical school day to make up gaps created by the pandemic,” per the Times.

Some schools are helping students academically recover by offer “high-dosage” tutoring, hiring more teachers and implementing “accelerated learning,” according to U.S. News. Getting students to where they need to be in their education is a priority for districts.

Parents can help their children by engaging with their kids’ schoolwork and finding ways to help them engage, too. U.S. News recommends investing in private tutoring if possible, but most importantly, communicating with teachers about how children are doing, how teachers can help and what resources are available.