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U.S. reading and math scores drop to their lowest levels in decades

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The report card is in now for how America's 13-year-olds are doing in math and reading. And it's not good. Scores have slipped to their lowest level in decades. To learn why, we turn now to Peggy Carr. She's the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the tests. Good morning.

PEGGY CARR: Good morning.

ELLIOTT: So first, give us the results. These are tests that were given last fall. What are they showing?

CARR: Well, the big story is that these additional data show how badly the pandemic has disrupted the learning of students. These were teenagers, 13-year-olds. Thirteen means that they were about 10 or 11 when the COVID hit three years ago. And so these data here today show that the reading and math scores have declined and especially the math scores here - widespread declines, showing students are really scoring very similar to what we picked up in the 1970s.

ELLIOTT: My goodness, though the math scores were worse. And I understand they also reveal some widening race and gender gaps. What does that tell us?

CARR: Well, I think the most important finding regarding the subgroups is that the lower-performing students, students who were already struggling even before the pandemic hit - their declines are dropping faster than their counterparts, their higher-performing students. And so the gap between them certainly is widening in a way that is so worrisome. You know, part of the problem is that even before the pandemic, as much as a decade ago, we were already seeing declines for these students, especially for the lower-performing ones. And the pandemic - well, it just accelerated these declines that we're seeing today.

ELLIOTT: Well, you know, NPR has been reporting about the decline in education outcomes during the pandemic. But we've had a couple of years now where most students have been back in the classroom, yet the slippage is still continuing. Is there any explanation for why that is still happening, even though kids are back in their seats?

CARR: Let me say that this test that we released yesterday was basic skills. So there was this expectation that perhaps we would see some movement back to the performance level that we picked up in the fall of 2019, but nothing. It's really historic. The declines are just as stark as they were before. So what we're picking up now is that there are a lot of other factors that are impacting the well-being of students - mental health. We are seeing chronic absenteeism. We're seeing a bullying increase. And then, of course, we all know about crime and safety in schools. So the big picture is that we need to think about the whole child, not just the academics, which are important, but we really need to focus on all the well-being - factors affecting the well-being of the student.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. Peggy Carr is the commissioner of the National Center for Educational Statistics, which is a branch of the U.S. Department of Education. Appreciate your time.

CARR: Thank you.

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