Mike Kennedy

Test scores and death counts

Oct. 3, 2022

Newly released results from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) show that the reading and mathematics scores of 9-year-old students fell significantly between 2020 and 2022. The average mathematics score declined seven points, and the average reading score for 9-year-olds declined five points.

“These are some of the largest declines we have observed in a single assessment cycle in 50 years of the NAEP program,” said Acting NCES Associate Commissioner Daniel McGrath. “Students in 2022 are performing at a level last seen two decades ago.”

Did anything happen between 2020 and 2022 that could have caused such a drop?

Well, there was that global pandemic. Your remember--the one that abruptly shut down tens of thousands of school campuses and transformed millions of students into reluctant home schoolers—if they were lucky enough to have the computer equipment and online access to connect remotely with their teachers.

The NAEP says the test results represent the first report with a nationally representative sample of students comparing achievement from before the Covid-19 pandemic to now.

The testing numbers are cause for concern, but is anyone surprised by them? Only an unwavering optimist would think that students could endure such a disruption to their established routine without any effect on their academic performance.

It remains to be seen how quickly test scores will rebound as students return to classrooms and again become accustomed to in-person instruction.

But expressing concern about the decline in test scores does not mean that schools made a mistake when they decided to cancel classes and send students home in March 2020 as Covid cases climbed rapidly. Keeping kids in school obviously would have been better for their academic progress, but the fear and uncertainly that swept across the nation when a deadly and little understood virus began claiming lives made it too risky to keep students confined indoors in close quarters.

If schools had not closed or had reopened more quickly, maybe reading and math test scores would have held steady. Or maybe some of those students and their teachers, sitting in crowded classrooms in one of the 36,000 or so U.S. school buildings with inadequate ventilation, would have contracted Covid-19, and instead of lamenting declining test scores, we would be adding their names to the more than 1 million Americans who have died from the virus.

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