Is the Nation’s Report Card also the nation’s K-12 rude awakening?

“School leaders and educators are doing everything they can but cannot act alone," one leader says.

Educators are hoping that the distressing plunge on the latest Nation’s Report Card convinces political leaders to go far beyond ESSER relief in efforts to help students regain lost ground.

Math results released Monday showed the largest decline that the Nation’s Report Card has ever recorded for 4th- and 8th-graders. And reading scores for 4th- and 8th-graders also plummeted since the last Nation’s Report Card assessments in 2019—falling to levels not recorded since 1992 and below all exams administered since the early 2000s.

“While these scores are extremely distressing, they are certainly not surprising,” said Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “School leaders and educators are doing everything they can but cannot act alone. While we must remember that tests are only part of the picture, federal leaders should see these scores as a call to rebuild and fully fund our education system.”

The association had shed light on some of the challenges that it believes are contributing to the drop in scores. Three-quarters of students reported they needed mental or emotional health counseling last year. And less than a third of students “strongly” agreed their schools were meeting the needs of  LGBTQ+ students, non-native English speakers and students from low-income households, a survey by NAASP found.

Report card reaction: Equity issues

The report card results are just the latest warning sign of the equity gaps exposed by the pandemic. Black and Latino students, English learners, and students from low-income backgrounds experienced more severe disruptions to their learning due to food and housing insecurity and unreliable access to high-speed Internet, computers and other devices. They also had fewer opportunities to build strong relationships with their teachers because they spent less time learning in person, says Denise Forte, interim CEO of The Education Trust.

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The effects of unfinished learning will be felt for years unless the nation recommits to equity-advancing strategies, including intensive tutoring, expanded learning time, deeper family engagement, safe and equitable learning environments, and reliable access to healthy foods. “The decline in math scores in nearly all states at both the fourth- and eighth-grade level is particularly worrisome, and the increased score gap in math for Black and Latino students compared to white fourth graders should be setting off alarms for parents and policymakers across America,” Forte says.

The report card results showed math and reading scores declined in a majority of states between 2019 and 2022. Math scores in both grades showed the biggest decline since the initial NAEP assessments were given in 1990, with 8th-graders losing 8 points and 4th-graders dropping 5 points since 2019.

This year’s reading scores for both 4th- and 8th-graders fell by 3 points compared to 2019. In 4th grade, these results are lower than all previous assessments since 2005 and were similar to the scores recorded in 1992. In 8th grade, these scores are the lowest since 1998. The results should be guiding policymakers’ coming investments in improving reading scores on not just the Nation’s Report Card but on state summative assessments and teachers’ formative assessments, says Miah Daughtery, vice president of academic advocacy for literacy at NWEA, the standardized testing provider.

More ways leaders can support students

K-12 leaders should be pressing policymakers to increase investments in public libraries and access to diverse texts and literacy programming. Districts also need greater support in providing professional learning in early literacy and recruiting effective teachers. Finally, school leaders must stand up against efforts to ban books that affirm students’ identities and foster racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse academic environments, Daughtery says.

“Beyond raising scores, the consequences of not learning how to read are severe and include reduced employment opportunities,” Daughtery adds. “We have most children for 13 years … and that is a relatively short time to get it right.”

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Administrators and teachers can also commit to providing parents with thorough information about their child’s mastery of grade-level skills and how educators will help students catch up when they fall behind, says Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “There is a worrisome disconnect between what the research clearly tells us and how parents believe their kids are doing,” Lake says. “The question now is, will states and districts hide from the numbers or engage honestly with families and dig in to address individual needs?”

“Appalling” and “unacceptable” are the words U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona used to describe the report card. He is confident, however, that school leaders in all parts of the country are using ESSER funds to close learning gaps and support students socially and emotionally. His department will soon release more guidance on using American Rescue Plan funds for academic recovery.

“This once-in-a-generation virus upended our country in so many ways—and our students cannot be the ones who sacrifice most now or in the long run,” Cardona said in a statement.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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