Even before the pandemic hit and schools shifted to remote learning, high school seniors’ test results were lackluster. Average scores in 2019 were unchanged in math but lower in reading compared with 2015, and scores decreased in both subjects for the country’s lowest performing students.
Those are just a few of the results from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, released in late October by the National Center for Education Statistics.
The assessment, which is given every four years, provides a snapshot of how 12th-graders in public and private schools nationwide are doing in certain academic subject areas. “It was created,” says Michelle Exstrom, director of NCSL’s Education Program, “to get an indication of how all students were doing on benchmarks that are agreed upon by the National Assessment Governing Board.”
The board is made up of experts and policymakers and currently includes two legislators, Representatives Alice Peisch (D-Mass.) and Mark White (R-Tenn.).
Among other findings from the assessment:
• Only students at the 90th percentile scored higher in 2019 than in the first assessment year (1992) for each subject.
• Scores declined in reading for male students overall and at the 10th and 25th percentiles since 2015.
• 2019 scores for racial/ethnic groups did not significantly change in either mathematics or reading since 2015.
• Overall, just 37% of 12th-graders reached or exceeded the academic preparedness benchmarks for both math and reading that would qualify them for entry-level college courses. That figure is unchanged from 2015.
“The NAEP results suggest that, while some states are making marginal progress, the country has essentially stalled in its efforts to improve educational outcomes much at all over the past two decades,” Exstrom says.
The country has essentially stalled in its efforts to improve educational outcomes much at all over the past two decades. —Michelle Exstrom, director of NCSL’s Education Program, on the results of the Nation’s Report Card
The report also highlights the widening gap between the academic high achievers and those who are struggling. While scores for students in the 90th percentile (the very highest performers) were unchanged in math and rose by 1 point in reading compared with 2005, those for students in the 10th percentile dropped by 3 points in math and by 5 points in reading.
“Those who are performing are making some progress, but those who are not are just getting worse,” Exstrom says. “And so we have a very significant divide that’s growing wider all the time, which will not produce the kinds of outcomes that legislators are hoping for in education and preparation for college and career.”
Complicating matters is the pandemic, which has forced many schools to turn to part- or full-time online instruction. Students in the higher percentiles tend to come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and are more likely to have better access to broadband and Wi-Fi, personal computers and help at home. “Those who do not will fall farther behind,” Exstrom says. “Some legislators feel like this situation has ripped the Band-Aid off these challenges already in our system, but now they have been laid bare for all to see. Some think this is what our country needed to truly understand the state of education, but of course many are extremely worried.”
FCC Helps Schools With Internet Access
Recognizing that remote learning during the pandemic has burdened many schools with an increased demand for internet connectivity, the Federal Communications Commission recently committed $1.37 million to 291 schools in 32 states and Puerto Rico in its latest round of E-rate funding. More than 220,000 students could benefit from the funds, the agency says.
The E-rate program, which is the FCC supervises, lets schools apply for funds to buy additional bandwidth for this academic year to address needs resulting from what the agency describes as a growing shift to 1:1 student-to-device ratios in classrooms, live streaming of classroom instruction to students at home and expanding use of cloud-based educational tools and platforms.
COVID-19 and Higher Education
Just as COVID-19 has exposed existing problems in secondary education, it has amplified disparities at the college and university level. In particular, it has laid bare the need for more postsecondary training to generate better job opportunities for students of color, said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, in a recent episode of NCSL’s podcast, “Our American States.”
“In postsecondary education we see tremendous differences in terms of educational attainment for African Americans and Latinos, for example, the same groups that are being impacted as a result of the pandemic in terms of what we’re seeing with health care, access to jobs, etc.,” Merisotis said. “The crisis is wiping out so many of these jobs for people who have low levels of educational attainment.”
An important role for lawmakers, he said, is to support schools as they move away from traditional notions of who attends college: More than 40% are now students of color, 40% work full time and one-third are over age 25. “What we’re seeing in terms of what legislatures are doing is encouraging in that they’re helping to recognize and support these students,” he said.
Besides the podcast, NCSL has extensive resources on lawmakers’ efforts to help postsecondary institutions respond to the crisis. For starters, see the Education Program’s latest package of stories for NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine. In addition, the resources listed below are being updated as new information becomes available.
Kevin Frazzini is an editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.