‘Profound toll’ the pandemic had on students shows up in Colorado’s drop in reading and math scores

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Restorative Dean Juan Rangel makes his way down an empty corridor at Lake Middle School, Denver, Oct. 6, 2020.

In test scores known as “the nation’s report card,” Colorado, along with the rest of the U.S., isn’t making the grade — and alarm bells are sounding as the academic impact of the pandemic is becoming more clear.

Math and reading scores in the state for fourth- and eighth-graders have dropped from 2019, according to data released today. The results of the National Assessment of Education Progress are the first nationwide look at how students fared during the disruptions and upheaval of 2020 and 2021.

“The results show the profound toll on student learning during the pandemic, as the size and scope of the declines are the largest ever in mathematics,” said Peggy G. Carr, who heads the National Center for Education Statistics. “It’s clear we all need to come together — policymakers and community leaders at every level— as partners in helping our educators, children and families succeed.”

Colorado mirrored many states across the nation, where test scores plummeted between 2019 and 2022, erasing many years of progress. Nationwide, no state improved in math, and eighth-grade math scores declined in 50 states and Puerto Rico. In 2022, the average reading score at both fourth and eighth grade decreased by 3 points compared to 2019.

The National Assessment of Education Progress assesses reading and math every two years to a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in each state. (The pandemic pushed the 2021 assessment to 2022.)

Officials say this year’s declines reflect the countless obstacles students faced over the course of the pandemic – including instability at home, little access to resources, teacher shortages, cyberbullying and increased disruptive behavior in classrooms when students returned to school.

Officials said there wasn’t a measurable difference in how well students performed based on how long a school or district was closed during the pandemic, according to the data.

In reading, Colorado scores were significantly higher than the national average in both fourth and eighth grade, according to the data. In math, Colorado’s scores are not significantly different from the rest of the country. But in most cases, Colorado’s scores dropped slightly more than the national average declines.

Specifically, the nation’s fourth-grade math scores dropped 5 points from 2019 to 2022, while Colorado’s dropped 6 points. In reading, the nation’s fourth-graders dropped 3 points while Colorado dropped only 2. In math, the nation’s eighth-graders plunged 8 points, while Colorado’s eighth-grade tumble was 10 points. In reading, eighth-grade scores nationwide fell 3 points, while Colorado’s fell 4 points.

Officials call for urgency to address the declines

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called the results “appalling and unacceptable.”

“A once in a generation virus upended our country in so many ways and our students cannot be the ones who sacrifice most in the long run,” he said. “We must treat the task of catching our children up with the urgency this moment demands.”

Cardona said states are investing in high-impact strategies like tutoring and afterschool programs that are starting to show promising results, what he called “pockets of excellence.” Cardona named Colorado in a list of five states where initial assessments this year show students are making progress.

The department will issue another resource for state and district leaders on how they can use federal dollars to address learning loss. It is also presenting five sessions starting this week that are aimed to help school districts boost students’ math and literacy skills. There is a parents check-list available to make sure their children are getting the support they need from federal dollars. 

“Academic recovery cannot simply be about returning to what was normal before the pandemic, as the pandemic laid bare an opportunity gap that has long existed,” said Carr. “It also showed how every student was vulnerable to the pandemic’s disruptions. We do not have a moment to waste.”

How many of Colorado’s students are scoring at the proficient or above level?

In math, 36 percent of Colorado fourth-graders and 28 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or better in 2022. That’s down from 44 percent and 37 percent respectively in 2019. Fourth-graders' highpoint in math over the past decade was 50 percent at or above proficiency in 2013. Eighth-graders high was 43 percent proficient in 2011.

In reading, 38 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or above in 2022. That’s down from 40 percent and 38 percent respectively in 2019.  Fourth-graders' high over the past decade was 41 percent in 2013. Eighth-graders high was 41 percent in 2017.

Double-digit gaps between racial and ethnic groups and between low-income students and their wealthier peers persist in math and reading. For example, in fourth-grade reading, 19 percent of students who were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch scored proficient or above, while 50 percent did for students who were not eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

Denver is one of 26 large cities where results are broken out at the district level  

In reading, the percentage of Denver fourth-graders who performed at or above the proficient level was 29 percent – down from 32 percent in 2019. In eighth-grade reading, Denver scored the same as the average score for students in other large cities. The number of Denver eighth-graders performing in reading proficiently or above was 28 percent, down just a point from 2019. The large city average score didn’t decline for eighth-grade  reading.

In math, Denver fourth-graders scored the same as the average score for students in other large cities. But the percentage of Denver fourth-graders scoring proficient or better in 2022 — 28 percent — dropped quite a bit from the city’s students in 2019 — 35 percent. The average fourth-grade reading scores for large city schools declined three points since 2019.

In eighth-grade math, similarly, Denver students scored about the same as their counterparts in other large urban cities. Denver eighth-graders struggled in math during the pandemic, resulting in just 22 percent scoring proficient or better on the National Assessment of Education Progress tests in 2022, compared to 29 percent in 2019. Eighth-grade math scores tumbled in 22 of the 26 districts.In math, the average score for large city schools declined 8 points for both fourth and eighth grades, reflecting the national pattern.