Nationwide reading score trends among 9-year-olds were set back decades amid COVID pandemic

By: - September 7, 2022 7:00 am

3rd grader reading. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

A nationwide assessment of elementary school kids indicates that 9-year-olds have been having a harder time reading since the onset the COVID-19 pandemic, which has helped undo years of progress in developing reading skills.

The average scale score for reading skills in 2022 was 215, down five points from 220 in 2020.

Findings are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal effort involving the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics to keep tabs on nationwide academic performance.

The 2022 results compare long-term trends in English language arts scores among 9-year-olds, who’d be in the 3rd or 4th grades.

Reading skills among elementary-aged children are crucial, since they lay the foundation for the rest of of a student’s academic career in all other courses — math, science, civics, music, or otherwise.

Data from NAEP show that students in 2022 are reading at levels last seen in the early 2000s. The first iteration of the long-term reading exam occurred in 1971, when students earned a reading score of 208.

The Phoenix previously reported that long-term trends for mathematics showed that 9-year-olds struggled in that subject in 2022, as well.

The NAEP is a broad, highly-regarded federal analysis of the condition of education in America, using a sample of students across the country. It involves tests in a variety of academic subjects, from reading and math to civics and science.

The assessment is not the same as statewide exams taken by students in individual states.

Peggy Carr, a federal education commissioner, said additional challenges besides COVID may have depressed the reading scores dropping.

“School shootings, violence, and classroom disruptions are up, as are teacher and staff vacancies, absenteeism, cyberbullying, and students’ use of mental health services,” Carr said in a written statement last week. “This information provides some important context for the results we’re seeing from the long-term trend assessment.”

What the scores mean

The NAEP scores students based on achievement levels, which indicate what skills a child has developed based on their scores and “describe what students should know and be able to do.”

Students who earned a level 150 or higher can “carry out simple, discrete reading tasks,” meaning they can follow simple written directions and select words to describe a simple picture.

Students who earned a level 200 or higher can “demonstrate partially developed skills and understanding.” These students can identify facts contained in informational texts and draw inferences based on passages they read.

At a level 250 or higher, the student can “interrelate ideas and make generalizations.” These students can use strategies to find information in longer passages and make generalizations about an author’s purpose in passages involving literature, science, and social studies.

The 2022 average scale of 215 indicates that the average 9-year-old in America may be able find information in a text and draw inferences from it but might struggle with higher-level skills involving connecting ideas and making generalizations.

During the past few years, the Florida Legislature has passed new laws to work towards getting early reading scores up, including implementing a monthly book delivery service for struggling elementary-aged readers from low-income families and creating a task force to close the gap between boys and girls in reading performance.

In March 2020, schools nationwide quickly converted to remote learning amid school closures intended to contain the then-novel COVID pandemic. That includes Florida schools under Gov. Ron DeSantis.

A few months later, DeSantis and officials in a handful of other states decided to quickly reopen schools to get students back into in-person instruction, well before COVID vaccines were widely available. But some school districts in the United States chose to continue remote learning.

Those varying state policy have lead to discussions of whether it was wiser to remain in remote learning or open the schoolhouse doors in the earlier months of the pandemic.

The NAEP scores lack a state-by-state breakdown, so there’s no way to tell how state COVID-era education policies contributed to these declines.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.