Latest Results Show Math and Reading Scores Plummeted—We Need to 'Act With a Sense of Urgency' Says US Secretary of Education

In an exclusive interview with Parents, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona says it's essential to respect our educators and involve primary caregivers in the education system.

Across the country, children are heading back to school for what will likely be a year that feels "normal" for the first time since the pandemic disrupted education in March of 2020. But the U.S. is still grappling with the pandemic's toll on schoolchildren. New data released further revealed its fast, damaging effect on academic performance.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the math and reading scores of 9-year-olds fell between 2020 and 2022. The decline in math scores was the first since the NCES began tracking performance in the 1970s, while the reading score drops were the largest in three decades. The data is based on tests administered to 14,800 students nationwide between January and March of 2022.

Students of all races and income levels showed declines, though some historically marginalized communities experienced starker declines.

  • Math scores went down 13 points for Black students, eight for Hispanic students, and five for white students.
  • Reading scores for white, Black, and Hispanic students declined by six points.
  • Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American/Alaskan Native students did not experience statistically significant declines.

Students considered "lower-performing" (in the 10th and 25th percentiles) also experienced sharper slides in math and reading than their peers in the 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles.

"It's alarming the drop, and it makes me want to make sure we are doubling down as a country to catch our kids up," says U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

Elementary Students Taking Standardized Test

The report does not include new data from the NCES showing that many of the students behind in at least one subject last year had caught up before the last day of school in 2022.

In a new Op-Ed for USA Today, Cardona urged Americans to look at the data as an opportunity to allocate resources as we move forward. He wrote that using it to target teachers and schools won't help catch students up—a point he reiterated to Parents.

"What we're trying to do now is lift up best practices, provide funding to make sure inequities are being addressed, and hold folks accountable for improving the education system," says Cardona.

In his Op-Ed, Cardona highlighted some districts that have implemented creative strategies to help students. He applauded Guilford County Schools in North Carolina for using relief dollars from the federal government to provide almost 67,000 hours of tutoring in the last year. Kentucky's Jefferson County Public Schools introduced student support centers staffed by retired teachers.

Another initiative, the National Partnership for Student Success launched earlier this year to combine federal, state, local, and community partners to work towards providing 250,000 tutors and mentors to help schoolchildren recover.

Cardona also told Parents that it's essential to involve primary caregivers in the education system. He pointed to Arizona's Family Engagement Centers, where parent engagement facilitators bring families into the school to help shape the direction of the school.

"We can't go back to what it was in March 2020," Cardona says. "That wasn't good enough."

It particularly wasn't good enough, either, for students of marginalized communities—and he wants to see those students, districts, and families centered as we move forward.

"Achievement gaps were almost normalized before the pandemic," says Cardona.

Cardona encouraged districts to use funds from the American Rescue Plan to fix decaying buildings, provide mental health support for communities, and improve broadband for marginalized and rural communities.

"We have to make sure we are fixing the infrastructure there and providing the laptops and broadband in rural and marginalized communities," says Cardona. "We need to be honest about the needs and act with a sense of urgency."

A commitment to education will also require a commitment to educators themselves. But the pandemic exacerbated another issue: Teacher shortages.

A National Education Association survey from earlier this year found that 86% of educators reported seeing more teachers retire or leave the profession since the start of the pandemic. Cardona said that the loss of educators during the pandemic may have also contributed to academic declines, and addressing the shortage is critical to recovery.

Still, Texas, California, Arizona, and Nevada were among the states struggling to recruit teachers to fill positions this summer.

Some states and districts have lowered the qualifications to teach. Florida is one—the Sunshine State passed legislation allowing military veterans without certificates to teach. Cardona doesn't think that's the answer.

"To lower standards now is further disrespectful to the profession and would exacerbate drops in…scoring moving forward," says Cardona. "This is a profession. This isn't a hobby."

On Thursday, the White House announced what it believes are better plans to address the shortage. These steps included a ZipRecruiter portal exclusively for K-12 schools, virtual hiring fairs for educators and staff on Indeed, and a Handshake-hosted virtual event for college students interested in education slated for October.

Cardona and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh also encouraged governors to use American Rescue Plan's Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds and the $350 billion in State and Local Fiscal Recovery to up teacher pay. One recent report showed that teachers make less than 33% than other college-educated professionals, and the school teachers; inflation-adjusted average weekly pay has increased by $29 from 1996 to 2021.

"It's time to level up our respect for educators," Cardona says. "Then, we won't see the teacher shortage."

The last couple of years have been difficult for parents, educators, school officials and staff, and students. But Cardona believes there's a way forward—and it involves burying hatchets and working together.

"When we reopened schools, we did it because we worked together," says Cardona. "This is not a red or blue thing…this is America…We go farther when we hear both perspectives and collaborate. If we are teaching our kindergartners how to work together, we need to model it."

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