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Utah student test scores declined during pandemic, but less than national peers

Utah students show ‘remarkable resiliency’ compared to peers nationwide, state superintendent says

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A third grade classroom at Parkview Elementary School is pictured in Salt Lake City on Sept. 8, 2020.

A third grade classroom at Parkview Elementary School in Salt Lake City sits empty on the first day of school as students attend classes online on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress reflect years of disrupted learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic as math and reading scores declined nationwide.

“Across the country, math scores saw their largest decreases ever. Reading scores dropped to 1992 levels,” The Associated Press reported, “Nearly four in 10 eighth graders failed to grasp basic math concepts. Not a single state saw a notable improvement in their average test scores, with some simply treading water at best.”

In Utah, the declines were smaller, which Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson attributed to Utah students demonstrating “remarkable resiliency during the pandemic relative to other students in the nation.”

“However, aspects of learning, like many other aspects of our lives, were negatively impacted,” Dickson’s statement continued. “Teachers, parents and students are aware of the changes in academic performance but can take heart in the additional efforts taking place to help all students be better prepared for successful outcomes and opportunities.”

While Utah’s performance boosted its academic rankings among states in most categories, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called the national results “appalling and unacceptable.”

In a call with reporters, Cardona said the results were “a moment of truth for education.”

The national assessment is congressionally mandated and administered within the Department of Education. The assessment tests reading and math proficiency among students in fourth and eighth grades every two years. The 2021 test was delayed until 2022 due to the pandemic.

Utah student test scores

Amid overall decline, Utah’s test scores were higher than the average scores nationally in math and reading for both fourth and eighth graders.

According to NAEP results, Utah eighth graders rose from 16th on the 2019 exam to second best in the nation in math.

The average score of Utah eighth grade students in math was 282 in 2022, above the average score of 273 for students in the nation. The percentage of Utah students considered at or above the NAEP proficiency level in math was 35% in 2022, slightly down from 37% in 2019 and up from 25% in 2000.

Meanwhile, Utah eighth graders moved up from sixth place to the third best state in the nation for reading. The average score of eighth grade students in Utah was 265 in reading, which exceeded the national average score of 259.

The percentage of eighth graders in Utah deemed at or above proficiency was 36% in 2022, slightly lower than 2019, which was 38% but above 1998, which reflected 31% of those tested as “proficient.”

NAEP tests, referred to as the “nation’s report card,” assess a representative sampling of students in states to provide nationally comparative data. In Utah, 1,700 students in each of the two grades and for both subjects took parts of the test.

Utah received $900 million in federal emergency pandemic funding to help schools, some of which was spent on health and physical safety needs.

The state elected to prioritize in-person learning, and much of the emergency funding went to supporting individual student learning needs via educational technology, after-school and summer school programs, and student social and emotional supports such as additional counselors and wellness rooms, according to the Utah State Board of Education.