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Nation’s Report Card charts NC and SC setbacks in reading and math

Charles Smith teaches seventh grade math at Coulwood STEM Academy.
Ann Doss Helms
Charles Smith teaches seventh grade math at Coulwood STEM Academy.

National test scores released Monday confirm the grim news that’s been coming from state exams: Students across the country saw significant academic setbacks during the pandemic, especially in math.

Math scores across the country showed their biggest decline since National Assessment of Educational Progress testing began in 1990, wiping out about a decade’s worth of small gains. Students in North and South Carolina fared about the same, with South Carolina falling below the national average for eighth grade math.

Peggy Carr, commissioner of theNational Center for Education Statistics, said the bigger drop in math was expected because of the time students spent in remote and hybrid learning. She told reporters at a Friday briefing that parents can often help children learn to read, but “math is just demonstrated, year after year in the research that we’ve seen, to be more sensitive to what goes on in the classroom.”

Data from the exams, also known as NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card, show that racial gaps persisted or worsened as school closures and pandemic trauma disrupted students’ lives.

“The pandemic simply made it worse. It took poor performance and dropped it down even further,” Cardona said at the Friday briefing. "As an educator and as a parent, that’s heartbreaking and it’s horrible. It’s an urgent call to action. We must raise the bar in education.”

Experts: Analyze with caution

A representative sampling of fourth- and eighth-grade students took reading and math tests in the first three months of this year. The last time the NAEP was given was in 2019, before the pandemic. National staff select the schools and students to be tested so no one can cherry-pick the best test-takers.

Jennifer Lang

Experts and testing officials generally caution against drawing cause-and-effect conclusions from changes in the scores. Martin West, academic dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education and member of the governing board that administers the NAEP, says it’s fair to attribute this year’s drop to the pandemic, but he warned against linking that to specific decisions.

“The pandemic closed schools. It also placed communities under great economic and health stress. And we know that all these influences, both inside of schools and outside of schools, matter for how well students are doing,” West said in a briefing for education reporters.

“I think it’s going to be hard to say how much was school closures vs. how much was the other ways in which the pandemic impacted students and families over the course of the pandemic,” West added.

Unlike state exams, which change frequently and vary from state to state, the NAEP scores provide a consistent comparison point across state lines and over the course of decades.

NAEP scores are translated into categories. Students rated proficient or better are considered to have at least “a solid academic performance.” Those ratings don’t necessarily match proficiency ratings on state exams.

Here’s what the 2022 scores show:

Fourth grade math

National proficiency slipped from 40% in 2019 to 35% for public schools this year, with the biggest declines among Black and Hispanic students and those in the bottom 25%. In other words, the students who went into the pandemic with the most disadvantages took the biggest hits.

Black and Hispanic communities were hardest hit in the early months of the pandemic, and schools that served those students tended to stay in remote learning longer.

North Carolina dropped from 41% to 35% proficient, a result that’s not considered significantly different from national results. Proficiency was 75% for Asian students, 49% for white students, 19% for Hispanic students and 16% for Black students.

South Carolina was among 10 states that did not see a statistically significant decline in fourth-grade math scores between 2019 and 2022. But that’s because scores were lower in 2019 than in most states. The current proficiency rate of 34% is comparable to the national average. South Carolina’s proficiency rate was 49% for white students, 24% for Hispanic students and 14% for Black students, without enough Asian students to report a result.

Eighth grade math

National proficiency declined from 33% to 26%. At this grade level the math slump was similar across racial groups, but large gaps remain and math proficiency is lower across the board than it is in fourth grade.

North Carolina’s proficiency went from 37% to 25%, considered comparable to national trends. Proficiency was 60% for Asian students, 37% for white students, 16% for Hispanic students and 9% for Black students.

South Carolina fell from 29% to 22% proficient, landing it among 15 states considered significantly below the national average. Proficiency was 32% for white students, 18% for Hispanic students and 7% for Black students.

Fourth grade reading

Reading levels declined slightly across the country and are currently similar to what they were in 1992. But the slump had begun before the pandemic, and significant progress on reading has been frustratingly slow across the nation. The decline was slightly larger for Black and Hispanic students than for white ones, and Asian students saw no change.

North Carolina was among 30 states that saw a significant decline from 2019, falling from 36% to 32% proficiency. That’s similar to the national average, which fell from 34% to 32%. North Carolina’s fourth-grade reading proficiency was 56% for Asian students, 44% for white students, 21% for Hispanic students and 17% for Black students.

South Carolina saw no significant change from 2019, hovering at 32% overall proficiency. That’s consistent with the national average. Proficiency was 46% for South Carolina’s white students, 17% for Hispanic students and 15% for Black students.

Eighth grade reading

Scores declined slightly in 33 states, including North and South Carolina. Proficiency was 29% nationally, 27% in South Carolina and 26% in North Carolina. Both state results were considered similar to the national results. South Carolina didn’t fall as far because it had lower scores in 2019.

In North Carolina, 46% of Asian students, 34% of white students, 21% of Hispanic students and 13% of Black students earned proficient scores on eighth-grade reading.

South Carolina’s eighth-grade reading proficiency was 37% for white students, 18% for Hispanic students and 13% for Black students.

What’s next?

States have already been offering intensive tutoring, summer programs and other efforts to help students cover academic ground they missed, while beefing up the number of counselors, psychologists and social workers to deal with the emotional impact of the pandemic.

Congress has pumped more than $190 billion into school systems across the country to deal with the impact of COVID-19, much of which still remains to be spent. In the Charlotte region, some of that money has gone toward recruitment and retention bonuses to help schools get the teachers who can help students advance.

The Department of Education will host a new seriesof sessions for educators and policymakers on the best tactics for using federal money to improve reading and math. The first of them is scheduled for Wednesday.

North Carolina is continuing its Read To Achieve program, which began 10 years ago in hopes of boosting elementary reading skills. The latest twist involves retraining all elementary school teachers to use science of reading strategies to help children read.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.