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Testing and Accountability

Scores nationwide crater on national math test, California’s not quite so much

Despite historic drop in math, there was some good news for California on NAEP


Nationwide scores plummeted in math and fell significantly in reading in 2022 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, providing new evidence of the pandemic’s unparalleled impact on student learning and reinforcing calls for extra help for students who have fallen behind. Scores in California followed the national pattern in math but less so in reading. 

The last time NAEP was given was in spring 2019, a year before the emergence of Covid.

The decline in math nationally — 8 points in eighth grade and 5 points in fourth (the two grades that take the national test) — was the largest drop in the three decades that NAEP has been given. This is “stark, it is troubling,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal agency that administers the test.

The 3-point drop in both fourth and eighth grade reading also was statistically significant. California’s eighth grade reading score didn’t decline at all, while its 2-point drop in fourth grade, 1 point less than the national decline, was not deemed significant by NAEP statisticians. 

However, the already wide gaps by race and income expanded  in California between 2019 and 2022. More students in low-income Black and Hispanic neighborhoods were chronically absent, had poorer internet connectivity, and their families were disproportionately affected by financial insecurity and by Covid deaths during the pandemic. 

Black students’ fourth grade math scores declined by 9 points and Latinos’ by 6 points while Asian students’ increased 2 points, the only student group to gain on the test, lengthening an already wide gap of more than 40 points on a scale of 500 points.

However, in eighth grade math, white students’ scores dropped 10 points, twice that of Latinos and Blacks.

Average Black and Hispanic fourth grade math scores fell in the bottom 20% of scores nationally, while Asian students were in the top 20%. White students, whose scores fell 5 points, were in the middle, averaging slightly above what NAEP defined as proficient.

But in a surprise, the state’s largest district, Los Angeles Unified, was the only one of 26 large, mostly urban districts in the U.S. that also take NAEP, to make a significant gain in eighth grade reading. LAUSD’s 9-point increase was unusually large and raised its score above the average for the other large districts for the first time since the district started taking the test in 2002. San Diego Unified is the other California district to take the test.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho attributed the increase in reading proficiency to greater attendance and engagement the district saw in middle school during the pandemic compared with elementary and high school. He also said extra support helped put more students on track.

“Before- and after-school tutoring programs, professional development opportunities for teachers and a high level of alignment of curriculum” produced growth outpacing the nation, Carvalho, who also serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, told EdSource.

The National Center for Education Statistics released the results Monday. The California Department of Education planned to release the 2022 results for the Smarter Balanced test in English language arts, math, science and the exam for English learners on Monday.

Although the patterns of a decline in scores from the pandemic are expected to be similar to NAEP, the results cannot be compared.

The Smarter Balanced assessment is tied to the Common Core standards and given to all students annually in grades 3 to 8 and grade 11 in California. NAEP, called the Nation’s Report Card, is the only test that all states, and a sampling of charter and private schools take. Usually given every other year, Covid forced a two-year hiatus.

NAEP is given to around 110,000 students — about 4,000 in California — in more than 5,000 schools nationwide that are chosen to reflect states’ income and ethnic diversity.

The achievement levels are also measured differently. It’s somewhat harder to achieve “proficiency” in NAEP than “meeting standard” on Smarter Balanced and most states’ tests. 

On NAEP in 2022, 31% of California students were at or above proficient in fourth grade reading and 30% percent were at or above proficient in fourth grade math. On the 2019 Smarter Balanced test, 49% of California students were at or above standard in fourth grade English language arts and 45% were at or above standard in fourth grade math. 

California’s scores will confound those who were assuming that NAEP would show big differences between states that passed laws requiring schools to reopen for in-person instruction during 2020-21 and those states where most schools closed to in-person instruction and switched to remote learning for more than a year.

Average scores in California, one of the last states to reopen, fell a little less in math and reading than most mandatory schools-open states, and in some instances the differences were significant. For example, scores on eighth grade reading in Florida, whose governor threatened to withhold state aid if a district didn’t reopen, fell 4 points, while California’s scores were flat from 2019 to 2022. In eighth grade math, scores fell 6 points in California and 7 points in Florida and in Texas.

Carr warned against drawing conclusions on the length of time schools were open during Covid. “There’s nothing in this data that tells us that there is a measurable difference in the performance between states and districts based solely on how long schools were closed,” she said, adding that the length and quality of remote learning were not measured.

Gov. Gavin Newsom credited California’s relatively better performance on NAEP to the state’s record $23 billion investment in education, although it’s unclear how the funding was a factor.  Calling the results “not a celebration but a call to action,” he said, “Students are struggling academically, and we need to keep getting them the resources they need to thrive.”

Slow, steady improvement

In a decade when average national NAEP scores stagnated, California has crept toward the national average, and, in the case of eighth grade reading, equaled it for the first time. This year, with smaller declines in math and reading than the nation, California’s state rankings improved.

Since many states are within a statistically insignificant 1 or 2 points of each, numerical rankings can be overstated. Nonetheless, in 2019, California ranked 39th in eighth grade English. This year, as one of 18 states whose scores did not significantly change, it ranked 24th. For fourth grade math, California ranks 39th, up from 44th.

What follows is a summary of the test results:

Fourth grade reading

Proficiency is a score of at least 238. Example: A student can identify key events to determine the main idea and make complex inferences about the characters’ actions, motivations or feelings, using relevant evidence from a literary text.

Eighth grade reading

Proficiency is a score of 281. Example: A student can offer an opinion about the evidence an author uses to support a claim or argument in informational text.

Fourth grade math

Proficiency is a score of 249. Example: A student can compare and order whole numbers, fractions and decimals to hundredths.

Eighth grade math

Proficiency is a score of 299. Example: A student can apply problem-solving strategies to solve Pythagorean theorem problems.

In 2019, 31% of students nationally scored below basic; this year, that jumped to 38%.

“We should not be surprised by these scores, but we also can’t become inured to them. In assessment after assessment, it’s clear that the typical U.S. student has serious holes in their math knowledge,” said Robin Lake, director and professor of practice at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Arizona State University. “We do have the tools to quickly address these gaps through tutoring and other interventions, but time is running out for older students.”

“Let me be very clear: These results are not acceptable,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “We need to continue to approach the task of catching all of our students up with the urgency that this issue warrants.”

EdSource reporters Ashleigh Panoo and Kate Sequeira and data journalist Daniel J. Willis contributed to this report.

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  1. Camille 1 month ago1 month ago

    No, not surprised, but this has been coming on for quite some time. Do not blame Covid! How about we get back to teaching basic math, reading (actually reading aloud), etc. Before Common Core, students at least at a chance at learning. There is a value in rote and repetitive lessons. I've raised a few grandchildren through high school, and am appalled at the lack of actual teaching (doing lesson sheets with … Read More

    No, not surprised, but this has been coming on for quite some time. Do not blame Covid! How about we get back to teaching basic math, reading (actually reading aloud), etc. Before Common Core, students at least at a chance at learning. There is a value in rote and repetitive lessons. I’ve raised a few grandchildren through high school, and am appalled at the lack of actual teaching (doing lesson sheets with the help of a computer is not teaching nor is it learning). Study skills are not taught, and actual life skills are severely lacking.

    Why is it that I can remember something I was taught in the 3rd grade (I am 70+ years old), and my grandchildren cannot add, subtract, divide, multiply in their heads (or at least estimate). I’ve spent many hours, days, etc. reinforcing reading skills, etc. while helping young people obtain and keep employment. As a nation, we should be looking back to smaller community schools, and making sure teachers are actually instructing.

  2. Carl T. 5 months ago5 months ago

    The pandemic only made an existing situation slightly worse. If we focus on recouping the damage done by the pandemic (for example, a 5% loss for LA Unified students on the Smarter Balanced test for math) and not on the bigger picture (they were only at 34% before the pandemic), then we will miss a great opportunity. We need to experiment with new approaches and try different things. The problem is not the pandemic.


    • Gary 5 months ago5 months ago

      How does California (specifically LAUSD) perform slightly less worse than other states or in some areas, even better, yet the California Standardized tests show learning loss for all grades? Obviously….one of the tests is an outlier. I’m gonna bet some $$ the NAEP sample from California, especially from LAUSD, is skewed. Either not a representative sample this year or the previous year the test was given was not a representative sample.

      • J 5 months ago5 months ago

        This is something I’ve heard before – could you provide some links? Thanks!