Massachusetts students' scores on a national reading and math exam plummeted during the pandemic

Scores on a national assessment of reading and math have plummeted in the past three years — both in Massachusetts and nationwide.

The state has long touted its performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is sometimes called "the nation's report card."

The NAEP exams are federally administered every two years to representative populations of students in the fourth, eighth and twelfth grade.

Massachusetts students have consistently earned at or near the nation's top NAEP scores for decades. They last ranked first on all four sections of the test in 2011. But that picture has gotten cloudier since 2015, with scores falling below those of students from Wyoming, New Jersey and those attending military schools.

And the state's latest results in mathematics and reading show a marked nationwide downturn since the test was last administered in 2019, before the pandemic.

While Massachusetts is still among the best-performing states, its 2022 results show considerable drops in average scores relative to 2019, especially in 8th-grade math.

Scores in 8th-grade reading held steady in large cities, in what Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, called a “bright spot … amidst all the chaos and damage.” But Boston saw a slight decline in that area to somewhere near the large-city average.

Like the reading scores from cities across the nation, Carr cited recent upturns in scores on state standardized tests — including on Massachusetts’ MCAS exams — as evidence of “what our hard-working educators … can achieve with the right conditions and adequate resources," including being back in classrooms.

Unlike many other standardized tests, NAEP aren't used as entrance or "exit exams." Instead, they're intended "to monitor continuously the knowledge, skills, and performance of the nation’s children; and... provide objective data about student performance" under the federal law governing the tests.

This year's results confirm that an academic backslide was a national phenomenon.

During a press conference Friday, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called the latest results "appalling and unacceptable," though he observed that the U.S. public education system wasn't "on track" before the pandemic.

Addressing educators, Cardona added: “If looking at these outcomes doesn't make us want to double down on systemwide academic recovery and use federal funds to provide more opportunities for students — if this doesn't have you fired up to raise the bar in education — you're in the wrong profession.”

Per the 2022 results, Massachusetts still leads the states in students scoring at or above “proficient” in 4th-grade reading, at or above “basic” in 8th-grade reading and — despite its 10-point decline in average scores — in 8th-grade math.

In a statement, Harry Feder, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, warned against assigning too much significance to these latest NAEP scores, saying they only “demonstrate what educators and parents already know — the pandemic was bad for kids.”

Feder, who is skeptical of high-stakes testing, added that “now that children are back in school, in-person learning has gone back to normal” — something that rebounding MCAS scores may reflect.


Headshot of Max Larkin

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live