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NEA News

'Nation’s Report Card' Shows Pandemic Exacerbated Opportunity Gaps  

After two years of disruption, NAEP reports a drop in test scores.
nation's repot card
Published: October 28, 2022

Key Takeaways

  1. After the global upheaval created by COVID-19, the results are not surprising.
  2. Chronically underfunded schools had fewer opportunities to learn, offering lessons in the vital nature of full funding.
  3. The pandemic exacerbated a long standing digital divide and opportunity gap and requires major changes in public education.

The reading and math scores just released by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) came as no surprise to educators: students’ learning opportunities varied greatly during the pandemic.  

NAEP, also known as the Nation's Report Card, released a full report for the first time since 2019, showing average scores declined in reading and math in most states. 

The picture was even worse for students of color and those who attend chronically under-funded schools.  

Pandemic Exacerbated Chronic Problems 

“The results confirm what educators have been sounding the alarm about for more than two years: the pandemic exacerbated existing gaps in opportunity and learning experiences between white students and students of color, as well as between well-funded schools and chronically underfunded ones,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association (NEA). 

Though the results paint a stark picture of achievement and widening gaps during the COVID crisis and remote learning, no clear conclusions can be drawn between states and cities that reopened schools sooner than others. 

For example, scores were similar in Florida, which opened schools more quickly than most states, and California, which reopened schools more slowly. In fact, the Los Angeles school district posted what is perhaps the only bright spot in a sea of concerning results: an impressive 9 point improvement in reading scores among eighth graders. 

What is clear, however, is that overall, the pandemic took a heavy toll on education in every community. 

“This once-in-a-generation virus upended our country in so many ways,” said U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. "We must treat the task of catching our children up...with the urgency this moment demands.” 

Results Part of a Complex Puzzle 

The NAEP results are just one piece of a large, complex puzzle and should not be viewed in isolation, said Pringle, which is why NEA is examining what the results show about learning conditions.  

For example, the widespread teacher shortage, which also began before the pandemic, worsened significantly over the past two years. Without access to consistent, qualified educators, students can’t succeed.  

The pervasive lack of high-speed internet and access to digital devices in low-income districts made it much harder for students in those schools to raise achievement levels, while higher levels of infection, deaths, job loss, and racial unrest during the pandemic also increased the mental health crisis that has long existed in disadvantaged communities. 

It is no surprise, then, that scores, particularly those in disadvantaged districts, declined.  

The NAEP results didn’t sound the alarm, Pringle said, it echoed an alarm that has been ringing for years, heightening the urging for policymakers to make sweeping changes. 

“To accelerate student learning and truly close opportunity gaps, our public schools require sustained and equitable resources that meet the unique needs of the communities and students they serve,” she said. 

NEA Recommendations: 

  • Build school systems that attract and retain qualified educators over the long term. For more, see NEA’s extensive report on how to solve educator shortages through evidence-based, long-term strategies and solutions that address both recruitment and retention.  

  • Improve assessments and gather more holistic data beyond standardized tests to measure growth and make decisions about how to advance equity and opportunity for all students in our schools. See NEA’s five principles for ensuring all students have access to an equitable, robust system of asset-based assessments.  

  • Bridge the digital divide with full broadband access, devices, and other necessary technology to ensure continued learning opportunities despite whatever disruption or disaster might occur. 

  • Hire more teachers to reduce class sizes and more counselors to help students with the mental health crisis worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Major Investment in Public Schools Required 

President Biden directed $122 billion in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to reopening schools and reversing learning losses, and NEA  has made major investments to help ensure those dollars move to improve teaching and learning conditions and to accelerate learning. Visit Funding the Recovery to learn more.

But ARP funds end in 2024, and that may not be enough time for districts to access it and invest in long term solutions that will support students and schools for years to come as we emerge from the pandemic. 

A massive increase in Title I funds for disadvantaged schools is also critical.

The federal government only provides about 10 percent of education funding, so states must redouble their efforts to increase public education investments to continue to support successful programs after ARP funds sunset.

“If we want to close gaps at learning, we need to look at all the indicators that were present long before COVID,” said Pringle. “This is the extension of a decades-long trend that coincides with the continued underfunding and under-resourcing of our nation’s public schools.” 

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.