Students across the country lost significant ground in reading and math amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to newly released national assessment data — but Oklahoma students’ scores slipped more than most. 

The data offers the clearest picture yet of academic setbacks incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic and comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Unpredictable shifts to virtual and distance learning, trauma from illness and death, and an ongoing teacher shortage have made pandemic-era schooling difficult.

Declines were steepest in math. 

In math, Oklahoma dropped 8 points for fourth graders and 13 points for eighth graders, the largest point decline of any state. Nationwide, scores dropped 5 points for fourth grade and 8 points for eighth grade. 

In reading, Oklahoma had an eight-point decline in fourth-grade reading and a seven-point decline in eighth-grade reading, compared to a three-point average national decline in both grades. Reading scores were declining even before the pandemic.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, one of three candidates running against Gov. Kevin Stitt in the Nov. 8 general election, called the results “deeply troubling.” 

“The scores are evidence that students suffered significant disruptions to educational achievement as a result of the pandemic,” she said. “A full recovery will take considerable time and resources, but Oklahoma students are already turning a corner.”

In a social media post, Stitt blamed school closures during the pandemic for the declines.

“Liberal school unions did everything they could to keep schools closed and students out of the classroom. Our children are paying the price. New test scores show the learning loss in Oklahoma far exceeds the national average. Unacceptable,” he tweeted Monday.

Federal officials cautioned against making such conclusions. 

“There’s nothing in this data that tells us there’s a measurable difference in the performance of states and districts based solely on how long schools were closed,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which manages the administration of the NAEP assessments. 

School disruptions began in March 2020 with a total shutdown at the onset of the pandemic and peaked in January 2022 amid the Omicron surge, according to Burbio, which tracked school closures and instructional methods across the country. 

Oklahoma schools were open more than about half of states, ranking in the middle for the average time in-person for the 2020-21 school year, Burbio’s data shows. 

On the Nation’s Report Card, dramatic declines were experienced across the country. In eighth-grade math, scores fell in nearly every state. In fourth-grade math, there were declines in 41 states. Reading scores also declined in more than half of states, with none demonstrating improvement.  

Remote learning looked very different across the U.S., and “is extremely complex,” Carr added. Also, there were significant declines in scores everywhere, including places where students were in remote learning for shorter periods.

Carr said she was not surprised to see larger declines in math, which is more sensitive to classroom instruction and requires skilled teachers. 

One trend where Oklahoma stands apart is enrollment in charter schools, as the pandemic drove a massive spike in enrollment in virtual charter schools. For 2020-21, Oklahoma had the highest number of new charter school students in the country; enrollment in charters grew by nearly 78%, according to a 2021 report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest, grew to nearly 60,000 students in 2020-21 and still reported more than 38,000 students in 2021-22. 

State test results released earlier this month showed the percentage of students scoring proficient or better improved in nearly every grade and subject compared to 2021. But scores were below pre-pandemic achievement levels. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona urged school leaders to double down on recovery efforts and use federal COVID-19 relief funds to help students catch up. 

“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. We must treat the task of catching our children up with the urgency this moment demands,” Cardona said. 

NAEP tests a broad sampling of fourth and eighth-grade students at public and private schools across the country every two years and has since the 1990s. The most recent testing took place between January and March 2022. Full NAEP results are available online.

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

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