In math, the average score for 9-year-old students fell 7...

In math, the average score for 9-year-old students fell 7 percentage points between 2020 and 2022, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The average reading score fell 5 points. Above, a Philadelphia classroom in March 2021. Credit: AP/Matt Rourke

Reading and math scores fell sharply among 9-year-olds nationwide during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to federal officials who reported that academic problems were exacerbated by increased student absenteeism and other behavioral ills.

Nationwide, the average math score dropped by 7 points between 2020 and 2022, while the average reading score declined 5 points, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES, a federal research agency. That represented the biggest decline in reading in 30 years, and the only decline in math since federal tests began. 

On Long Island, school leaders said steps were already underway to provide extra help to students struggling with their lessons due to quarantines and other disruptions caused by the pandemic. Improvements regionwide range from expansion of preschool and summer classes to installation of air filters and outdoor dining tables. 

"We've been aware of the drop — we call it the pandemic drop — and we've put some structures in place in terms of supporting students," said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Malverne schools and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "We know there's work to be done, and we're focused and ready to do it." 

The state's Department of Education in Albany has said it will release results of testing in local districts sometime this fall but has not yet set a date. JP O'Hare, a spokesman, said the agency remains "committed to fostering high-quality instructional opportunities that provide authentic measures of deeper learning."

Declines in federal testing results were recorded throughout the nation but were slightly worse in the Northeast and Midwest than in the West and South. Most racial and ethnic groups lost ground in reading, while students of color showed the biggest losses in math.

In reading, scores dropped an average 6 points for white students, Black students and Hispanic students alike. Math scores decreased 5 percentage points for white students, compared with 13 points for Black students and 8 points for Hispanic students. 

Asian American students and Native American students showed little change in scores, federal analysts said.

Alan Singer, a Hofstra University education professor, noted that recent setbacks in math among students of color could well have reflected financial disparities. 

"It's more related to the economic condition of the families," Singer said. "They didn't have the same technological resources, and they also were in homes that were more crowded. They were in homes where parents may have had less education." 

In Washington, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona noted that the administration-backed American Rescue Plan has distributed $130 billion in relief aid to schools across the country. Meanwhile, New York State has increased its school financial aid by more than $5 billion. 

"Our top priority remains to make sure states, schools and districts are using these funds on strategies we know work like well-resourced schools, high-dosage tutoring and enriching after-school programs — and directing the most resources towards students who fell furthest behind," Cardona said in a statement released Thursday. 

In addition to declining test scores, other federal data presents a "sobering picture" of conditions faced by students during the pandemic, experts said. 

"School shootings, violence and classroom disruptions are up, as are teacher and staff vacancies, absenteeism, cyberbullying and students' use of mental health services," said Peggy Carr, commissioner of NCES.

Over the longer range, however, national academic achievement still shows progress, federal officials said.

For example, average math scores, while declining between 2020 and 2022, remained 15 points higher than in 1978. Reading scores remain seven points higher than in 1971. 

With AP

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