‘Massive decline’ in learning during COVID, but California fared better than other states

In a powerful indication of how students suffered academically during the COVID pandemic, test scores plummeted across the nation in math and fell significantly in reading in 2022, and California students also performed dramatically worse this year on the state’s standardized test, according to two sets of results released Monday that amplify the debate over the impact of remote learning.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, known as the Nation’s Report Card because it’s the only test taken in all states, saw the largest drop ever in math scores. Compared to 2019, the last time the exam was administered, math scores fell 8 points in eighth grade and 5 points in fourth, the two grades that take the test. And both grades dropped 3 points in reading, also deemed statistically significant.

In California’s test known as Smarter Balanced, fewer than half of students met the state standard in English language arts — a drop of 4 percentage points to 47.1% from pre-pandemic 2018-19, when the test was last required statewide. And only a third of students performed at standard in math, a decline of 6.5 percentage points.

“That’s a massive decline,” said Heather J. Hough, executive director of policy analysis for PACE, or Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent, non-partisan research center led by faculty directors at Stanford University, the University of Southern California and the University of California.

“We have not seen anything like that ever,” Hough said. “This is an unprecedented challenge that we have to face. This should really provide a call to action and cause of alarm.”

California skipped the Smarter Balanced assessment — which is given to all 3rd, 8th and 11th graders — statewide during two years of COVID-19. The state canceled the test in spring of 2020, when all schools closed and switched to remote learning, and made the statewide test optional in 2020-21.

This year’s results showed the pandemic’s alarming effects were widespread, with scores falling roughly the same 5 to 7 percentage points among most racial and ethnic groups, wiping out six years of slow, steady progress since Smarter Balanced was introduced in 2014-15. The disparities plaguing ethnic groups remained large, with 69.4% of Asian students scoring at or above standard in 2022, more than triple the rate for Latino and Black students.

A Bay Area News Group analysis of Smarter Balanced results showed countywide increases in students not meeting standards in Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties.

Contra Costa County had more than 28% of students not meeting standards in English language and nearly 38% in math, the largest proportions among those counties.

A look at the 10 largest Bay Area districts showed the number of students not meeting math standards rose in all of them. For English language arts, most saw increases as well, though Oakland Unified and East Side Union High School District in San Jose saw decreases.

California followed the national pattern in math but less so in reading in the NAEP scores, which are given to around 110,000 students — 4,000 of them in California — in more than 5,000 schools nationwide chosen to reflect states’ income and ethnic diversity. The national exam has been given for the last three decades.

On the national test in 2022, 31% of California students were at or above proficient in fourth grade reading and 30% percent were at or above proficient in fourth grade math.

Surprisingly, average scores in California, one of the last states to reopen, fell a little less in math and reading than most states that required schools to reopen for in-person instruction in 2020-21. In some instances the differences were significant.

For example, eighth grade reading scores in Florida, whose governor threatened to withhold state aid if a district didn’t reopen, fell 4 points, while California’s scores were flat from 2019 to 2022. In eighth grade math, scores fell 6 points in California and 7 points in Florida and in Texas.

Gov. Gavin Newsom credited California’s relatively better performance on the NAEP to the state’s record $23 billion investment in education, although it’s unclear how the funding was a factor. Calling the results “not a celebration but a call to action,” he said, “students are struggling academically, and we need to keep getting them the resources they need to thrive.”

But Newsom’s Florida counterpart, Gov. Ron DeSantis insisted Monday that keeping schools open was the right decision. As a result, he said that Florida students “earned the state’s highest ever rankings in both reading and math.”

Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal agency that administers NAEP, warned against drawing conclusions regarding the length of time schools were open during COVID.

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