National test results released Monday show the devastating effect of the pandemic on learning in Maryland, with achievement dropping to 1998 levels, wiping out two decades of educational progress.

The drops in achievement by Maryland students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, were some of the largest in the nation, particularly in fourth grade reading and math.

While 35% of the state’s fourth graders were proficient in reading in 2019, just 31% were in 2022. And in math, the percentage of proficient fourth graders dropped eight points from the 2019 results to 31% this year.

“There’s no sugarcoating the results,” Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury said. Relative to the rest of the nation, the state has been on a decline since 2013, he said. “You can’t just say it is because of the pandemic. The pandemic exacerbated the loss.”

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NAEP, given every other year in fourth and eighth grade, is considered the most accurate assessment of American student achievement.

Maryland began priding itself on the performance of its public schools as student scores on the NAEP began inching up in 1998, rising by 2011 to far above the national average. But the 2022 NAEP scores show the state’s students scoring in the middle of the pack compared to other states.

Across the nation and in Maryland, NAEP scores also show an increasing achievement gap between subgroups of students — students of color, economically disadvantaged students and those with special needs — and the rest of the population. In addition, scores fell further for those who were already performing below the basic level than those who were advanced.

Baltimore City scores dropped dramatically as well, but eighth graders did not lose as much ground during the pandemic on either math or reading tests as students across the state did, a remarkable bright spot for the city. And the city’s Black students’ scores in eighth grade reading stayed flat while statewide scores for Black students dropped significantly, according to city schools.

For instance, the city’s eighth graders did as well on the reading test in 2022 as they did in the spring of 2019 before the pandemic. The city results mirrored the national trend, with public school students in large urban areas not seeing as large declines as other students during the pandemic.

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Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said that overall she is not “overly joyous, and doing backflips,” but she sees the results as confirming some of the investments the city has made over the past four or five years in literacy. The investment, she said, “helped mitigate some of the negative impacts of the last two and a half years.”

In fourth grade, the story was different. The city did see the largest drop among cities in the nation in fourth grade reading scores, an indication of just how serious shutting down schools was for second graders trying to learn to read. The fourth grade math declines were equally significant, and city administrators are looking at strategies to increase achievement. Santelises said the declines “made my stomach drop.”

In cities where there are high concentrations of poverty, Santelises said it was not surprising that student achievement declined. “From my perspective there is a concentrated vulnerability that is more susceptible to the negative impact of these kinds of crises,” she said.

Baltimore City scores were lower than most of the 26 cities across the nation that participated, beating only Cleveland and Detroit in several of the tests. For instance, only 31% of city fourth graders were considered proficient in reading in 2022 compared to 53% in Maryland and 61% nationally.

Maryland had the fourth largest decline in fourth and eighth grade math scores of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The declines in reading were not as steep, but were larger than more than half the states. And its overall scores hover close to the national average. Only one-quarter of the state’s eighth graders were proficient in math, down from 33% in 2019, and one percentage point below the national average.

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But 36% of the state’s eighth graders were proficient in reading, compared to 29% nationally.

The state’s overall mediocre results are likely to reinforce political support for the new Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, landmark legislation that will pump billions of additional dollars into education over a decade. The Blueprint spells out requirements for how the money will be spent, including requiring schools to provide more support for high-poverty schools, additional focus on career and technology education at high schools and steps to elevate the teaching profession.

Choudhury said that all public schools are serving more students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and that school systems must make shifts that ensure students have good instruction and curriculum that can address those gaps. Maryland, he said, through the Blueprint, is beginning to address those issues.

Maryland and California were the last two states in the nation to open up classrooms during the pandemic, keeping students learning online for at least a year, particularly in the large districts in central Maryland.

However, federal officials said they did not believe there was connection between achievement and how long school systems were shut down. “There’s nothing in this data that tells us that ... there is a measurable difference in performance between states and districts based solely on how long schools were closed,” said Peggy G. Carr, the National Center for Education Statistics commissioner. She said many factors related to the pandemic could determine achievement. Those include how good the online schooling was and whether students had access to the technology they needed.

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Nationally, the results showed that students struggled most in math during the pandemic. “These mathematical results are historic. This is because they are the largest declines in mathematics we have observed in the entire history of this assessment,” Carr said at a press briefing.

The teaching of math, she said, is particularly sensitive to the teacher. “Math is just simply more sensitive to schooling. You really need the teachers to teach math,” Carr said. Parents are more comfortable helping their children learn to read or telling them to go read, but they are less likely to encourage them to go do math problems.

“Parents should be concerned,” said Robin Lake at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, referring to the national scores. “They should ask their child’s teacher for information and assessment results about their child’s mastery of grade-level skills. They should also ask how the school plans to narrow or eliminate those gaps by the end of the school year. There is a worrisome disconnect between what the research clearly tells us and how parents believe their kids are doing.”

The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education, oversees the test. In 1988, Congress created the independent and nonpartisan National Assessment Governing Board to set policy for the NAEP.

Ryan Little contributed to this story.

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