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Utah a ‘bright spot’ in a gloomy post-COVID national math and reading report card

Students who attend Salt Lake City School District schools rally at East High School Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, urging the school board and administrators to resume in-person learning.
Rick Bowmer
Students who attend Salt Lake City School District schools rally at East High School Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City, urging the school board and administrators to resume in-person learning.

Utah’s fourth and eighth graders are doing better in math and reading than some of their peers in other states. That’s according to data released Monday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card.

But compared to pre-pandemic levels, Utah’s fourth grade math and reading test scores are still down and its eighth grade test scores have not improved.

The 2022 Nation’s Report Card is the first full report put out since 2019 and provides the results of the NAEP test administered in early 2022. According to the Utah State Board of Education, 1,700 students in the state took the test.

Nationally, math and reading scores for fourth and eighth graders went down between 2019 and 2022. The decrease in math scores was the largest decline since the test was first administered in 1990.

In a news release, Peggy Carr, the commissioner for the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, said “the results show the profound toll on student learning during the pandemic.”

But Carr also noted the declines were not just caused by the pandemic, but persistent problems that allowed the pandemic to be so detrimental to student learning. Before 2020, the NAEP scores of lower-performing students were declining at a faster rate than higher-performing students.

“We do not have a moment to waste,” she said.

Utah’s fourth grade math and reading scores were down in line with the national trend. It was also the first time those scores have dropped since state-level data for Utah was first reported in 1992.

The state stood out from the rest of the nation when it came to eighth grade scores. Utah was the only state to not see a statistically significant decline in 2022 eighth grade math scores, though the Department of Defense Education Activity schools that serve children in military families also had eighth grade math scores that did not significantly change from 2019. The same steadiness also held true for Utah’s eighth grade reading scores.

On Monday, Carr said at the National Assessment Governing Board’s release of the results that Utah and the Department of Defense possibly represented a “bright spot” in an otherwise gloomy report.

If you ask State Superintendent of Instruction Sydnee Dickson, she’d tell you that “Utah students demonstrated remarkable resiliency during the pandemic relative to other students in the nation.”

There were, however, some gaps in average test scores between certain Utah demographics. Hispanic students had lower average scores than white students in fourth grade reading, eighth grade reading, fourth grade math, and eighth grade math. Students who were eligible for the National School Lunch Program also had lower scores than students who were not eligible across the board.

NAEP coordinator for Utah Angela Battaglia said she was not surprised that younger kids had lower scores.

“Fourth graders, they would be benefiting the most from being in a classroom because they don't have the skill set yet to perhaps learn independently. Eighth graders are more independent, have more ability to learn remotely,” Battaglia said.

The Nation’s Report Card is also similar to what the Utah Board of Education reported earlier in October in the state’s annual report card, Battalia noted.

Utah Board of Education spokesperson Mark Peterson hypothesized that Utah did better than most states on NAEP because it prioritized in-person instruction during the pandemic and was already working on digital learning before 2020. But Peterson said the state will have to take a closer look at the data to understand how it can improve.

“Statistically, they [eighth graders] didn't take hits, but they're not progressing further either. It's just relatively good news in what is a bad news report,” said Peterson.

Commissioner Carr said the Nation’s Report Card does not provide data showing a clear correlation between in-person learning and student performance and that declines in test scores were widespread.

“There are no measurable differences in performance between districts and states who stayed in remote learning longer than others,” she said. “There were a lot of things going on.”

While the Nation’s Report Card provides a comparison between states, Battaglia said it doesn’t give the full picture of how students are doing in Utah.

NAEP tests students on standards set by the National Achievement Governing Board, while Utah has its own educational standards that the curriculum is based around. Additionally, NAEP also only tests a sample of students rather than the entire state.

Overall, Battaglia is proud of what the Nation’s Report Card says about Utah’s educators and students.

“Our students have been resilient. Our educators have been amazing, you know, they should be the ones to take all this credit,” she said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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