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Have students recovered from pandemic learning loss?

With several states having reported returns to pre-pandemic achievement levels on their state assessments, long-term math and reading assessment data dating back to the 1970s is a reminder that state test scores are just one measure of progress and shouldn’t be relied upon solely to determine if schools are seeing recovery from learning loss in the recent years.

In fact, declines leading up to 2020 show math and reading scores were on the decline prior to COVID. 

NAEPs Long-Term Trend Assessment vs. NAEPs Main Assessment

Results from the latest line of data from the NAEP over the past few years have all shown widespread declines in student achievement. The Long-Term Trend Assessment, however, is different from the NAEP’s subject-area assessments. 

Although the long-term trend and main NAEP assessment both assess mathematics and reading, there are several differences, particularly in the content assessed, how often the assessment is administered, and how the results are reported. 

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The long-term trend assessments given in math and reading have remained relatively unchanged since being first administered in the 1970s and focus on basic skills assessment every four years in comparison to the subject-area assessments in the Main NAEP assessment that is administered every two years. 

Although the long-term trend assessment was updated in the 1970s and '80s, the continuity of assessment content was sufficient not to require a break in trending data. 

NAEP 2023 Long-Term Trend Assessment Results 

From October to December of the 2022–23 school year 8,700 students aged 13 from 460 schools took NAEPs Long-Term Trend Assessment. Student questionnaires showed 13-year-olds who reported reading “never or hardly ever” had been growing prior to the pandemic and the effects of learning loss. The percentage of students who reported reading “never or hardly ever” grew from 22% in 2012 to 29% in 2020. 

Overall, the percentage of 13-year-old students who reported reading for fun almost every day was lower in 2023 than in all previous assessment years. The decline was substantial with a noticeable drop from 27% of 13-year-olds reporting that they read for fun almost every day to only 17% in 2020. 

Compared to a decade ago, reading scores on the Long-Term Trend Assessment, which focuses on locating specific information, making inferences, and identifying the main idea of a passage have declined 7 points in 2023. 

The Main NAEP Assessment that is administered every two years focuses on basic skills, recall of definitions, problem-solving, and reasoning in all topic areas. The Long-Term Trend Assessment, however, only focuses on basic skills and recall of definitions for mathematics. What did assessment data show on the 2023 mathematics long-term trend assessment? A startling decline of 14 points in 2023.  

Gap scores as measured by the Long-Term Trend Assessment have also caused increasing alarm. In mathematics, an 11-point score decrease was identified for female students compared to only a 7-point decrease for male students reflecting a widening of the Male−Female score gap in comparison to 2020. 

Also in mathematics, a 13-point score decrease among Black students compared to the 6-point decrease among White students shows a widening of the White−Black score gap from 35 points in 2020 to 42 points in 2023. 

While state testing scores are one way to identify the amount of learning loss that has been mitigated, NAEPs Long-Term Trend Assessment certainly provides a valuable reminder that progress should be measured by also comparing current data trends to pre-pandemic trajectories. 

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