Analysis: Widespread Math and Reading Declines, Plus Increasing Inequality

Math and reading
(Image credit: Pixabay)

A new analysis of more than one million K-8 students across the U.S. found declines in math and reading among all students, with the sharpest declines seen for Black and Latino students. 

“When you look at the national trends, it's bleak,” says report author Kristen Huff, EdD, vice president of assessment and research at Curriculum Associates and a former senior fellow at the New York Regents Research Fund. “There are systemic reasons for these historical inequities, and now, they have not only been maintained but exacerbated.”

For the analysis, released on March 18, Huff looked at 2020-21 data in reading and math from Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready Diagnostics. She compared this data to historical trends to assess the impact of the pandemic on students.

The key takeaways are mostly negative, however, Huff says there are ways to help students recover from the learning loss we’re seeing.  

Overall declines in reading and math 

“The kids are not okay in reading,” Huff says. “If you look at our data, you will see that across all grades, one through eight, there is a decrease in the percent of students who are performing at grade level this winter. And that decrease is particularly acute in the early grades one, two, and three.” 

For example, the analysis found that the percentage of first grade students who were prepared to do grade-level work was 36 percent — a decrease of 10 percent when compared to the historical average. Second graders also experienced a 10 percent decrease against the historical average, while third graders saw a six percent decrease. Decreases for grades four through eight ranged from 4 percent to 1 percent. 

Huff says the data from grades one through three is particularly worrisome because kids are learning to read in these early grades. “This is when students benefit most greatly from direct instruction and phonics, phonemic awareness, and other foundational skills in reading,” she says. 

Math declines were similar. Only 36 percent of fourth graders were prepared to do grade level work, a decline of 16 percent compared to historical averages. Third grade saw 12 percent declines, while fifth grade saw 11 percent declines and declines in other grades ranged from 10 to 2 percent

“The biggest drop in math that we're seeing right now is in fourth grade,” Huff says. “What happens in fourth grade? Proportional reasoning, fractions. What is this? This is the basis of algebraic preparedness.” 

She adds students need to develop these skills because, “Algebra is the cliff where we lose students on their pathway to college and career readiness.” 

The Pandemic is Intensifying Existing Inequalities

“All of this bad news is especially bad when you disaggregate by race, ethnicity, or income,” Huff says. 

For instance, in schools composed of primarily Black and Latino students, the number of third graders not prepared to work at their grade level in math increased by 14 and 10 percent, respectively, compared to a five percent increase for the majority of schools with primarily white students. 

The data also shows that declines in reading and math are steepest in communities in which the median annual household income is below $50,000, and that students of color are more likely to be attending remote school than white students. 

As concerning as the report is, Huff offers optimism. 

“The ray of hope is that we actually know what needs to be done to help these students get on a path back toward grade level,” she says. “It's acceleration, not remediation, high-quality materials, coherence across the educational plan for the students. It's giving the students targeted help. ‘For today's lesson, Eric, we are going to be studying how to do mixed fractions. I know from data I have, that you are behind in these three prerequisites required to engage with today's lesson. So I'm going to give you a special homework assignment to help you get familiar with these concepts.’” 

High-quality tutoring and having clear actionable data is also key. “It's not a mystery, what we need to do,” Huff says. “Now there are funds, we just need to make sure the funds are distributed for interventions that we know work and to the students and communities who need it most.” 

She adds, “We hope to create a sense of urgency about how to use the resources at hand to create targeted interventions for students who need them the most.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.