American middle schoolers are reporting the lowest long-term reading and math assessment scores in the last 11 years, falling to the lowest levels on records.
The latest data from a long-term evaluation of student performance indicates that a decline in overall academic performance among American students pre-dated the COVID-19 pandemic.
The National Center for Education Statistics – a division of the Department of Education – published an ongoing report of 13-year-old students known as The Nation’s Report Card. To determine reading and math scores, 8,700 students at about 460 schools nationwide took an assessment.
The results showed average scores for both areas are now lower than pre-pandemic scores, with a 9-point decline in the average math performance score between the 2019-2020 school year and the 2022-2023 school year, as well as a 4-point decline in the average reading performance score.
In September of 2022, Forbes noted The Nation’s Report Card’s results for 9-year-old students showed “public education’s ability to respond in real time to a crisis was a failure by all measures.” While there is evidence of significant learning losses among American students due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Center for Education Statistics has documented declines in student performance for the last decade.
This year’s results also mark a 7-point decline in math and a 14-point decline in reading since average scores peaked in 2012, from 263 to 256 and 285 to 271 respectively.
The decline was universal, impacting every racial and ethnic group, both genders, and urban, suburban, and rural schools alike. Additionally, every performance percentile of students observed a decline in both subjects.
The Department of Education first began tracking the trends in 13-year-olds’ education in 1971. At the time, the age group’s average math and reading scores were 255 and 266, respectively, and steadily improved until 2012.
In addition to completing an academic assessment, students were surveyed about their educational experiences and personal characteristics.
“This information may be valuable in helping parents, educators, and policymakers understand what aspects of students’ experiences are related to achievement,” noted the National Center for Education Statistics. “Survey questionnaire results, however, do not establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the characteristic or experience and student achievement.”
The agency noted its assessment “is not designed to identify the causes of performance differences” as “numerous factors interact to influence student achievement, including local educational policies and practices, the quality of teachers, and available resources.”
“Such factors may change over time and vary among student groups,” the research team noted.
Just 14% of students reported that they read for fun every day – the lowest year on record since the survey began. The result was a 3% decline from 2020 and a 13% decline from 2012. Thirty-one percent of students reported that they “never or hardly ever” read for fun. Higher-performing students were significantly more likely (51%) to read for fun, whereas a higher proportion of lower-performing students (42%) said they never or hardly ever read for fun.
Fewer students reported taking advanced-level math classes. The number of students taking pre-algebra declined from 29% in 2012 to 22% in 2023 while the number of students enrolled in algebra dropped from 34% to 24% during the same 11 years.