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Troubling News on Student Performance—and What to Do About It

July 7, 2023

New data are in from U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—and it’s not good.

Results from the NAEP long-term trend (LTT) reading and mathematics assessments for 13-year-old students indicate that average scores declined by 9 points in mathematics and by 4 points in reading between December 2019 and December 2022. These drops were evident among students at all achievement levels, but were worse among students in the bottom 25th percentile of scores compared to students who were in the 50th percentile and above. The decline in test scores among students at the lower versus middle and higher ends of the achievement spectrum was not statistically significant for reading—but it was for mathematics.

In fact, disparities in mathematics performance got worse for students who are underrepresented in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) field. Female students had an 11-point decrease in mathematics scores between 2019 and 2022, compared to a 7-point decrease for male students. Students who are Black had a 13-point decrease in mathematics scores compared to a 6-point decrease for white students. Both differences were statistically significant.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the NAEP LTT assessment includes a survey of students’ learning experiences and these results were also troubling.

  • Chronic absenteeism is on the rise: The percentage of students who reported missing five or more days of school in the past month doubled from 5 percent in 2019 to 10 percent in 2022.
  • A smaller percentage of students are reading for fun: The percentage of students who indicated they read for fun almost every day declined from 17 percent in 2019 to 14 percent in 2022.

The main 2022 NAEP assessment, which was administered between January and March 2022, provided earlier evidence of declines in mathematics performance. Among 8th graders, average NAEP mathematics scores declined by 8 points between 2019 and 2022 (the 2021 NAEP was postponed due to the pandemic). Because instruments and methodologies are different, it is not possible to compare results from the main NAEP assessment with the LTT assessment but the trends are nonetheless clear: student performance is declining. Although we presume some of these declines are due to the pandemic, they also represent a continuation of pre-pandemic trends.

What Can Educators Do?

The good news is that COVID-19 Elementary and Secondary Schooling Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds are still available in some areas. These funds provided $189 billion in relief—mainly through the Title I program—to address learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As educators are investigating how to use these funds most effectively, they should consider options that include:

  • Using ESSER funds for evidence-based interventions. There is a wealth of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse on interventions that have been shown to be effective in improving math and reading performance. Selecting the right intervention is an art that includes considering the magnitude of effects, whether the evidence was produced in a similar context, the cost, and the political/operational feasibility of implementing the intervention locally.
  • Adding extended learning time. One clear solution to learning loss is to add more schooling. Summer learning or after-school programs can help provide extra instructional time to help students get back on track.
  • Implementing high-intensity tutoring. Intensive tutoring can give students extra attention and support—as well as a different learning experience that may better meet their needs than classroom instruction. A meta-analysis of tutoring programs by Nickow, Oreopoulos, & Quan found that increasing tutoring frequency from one or two sessions per week to three sessions per week benefits student learning across all grades. Authors also found that one-on-one tutoring outperformed small group tutoring for students in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade.
  • Providing wraparound non-academic supports: We should keep in mind that declining test scores are not simply an academic problem. Students need an array of supports and skills to succeed in school, so educators should not overlook the role that social-emotional learning, mentoring, enrichment, and even school breakfast programs can play in improving students’ academics.

The learning loss we’re seeing has its roots in both educational and social challenges, which means efforts to support students will need to involve educators, administrators, families, and communities. But the key to finding solutions may be as simple as taking another look at what we already know works.

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