New Federal Report: Half of Public School Students Are Now Performing Below Grade Level

A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics provides yet more evidence that American schoolchildren suffered dramatic educational losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report compiled data from various sources on the state of American primary, secondary, and higher education, looking at everything from college graduation rates to child poverty rates.

While dramatic declines in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test have received national attention, the newly released report sheds light on a different metric showing declines in performance.

According to one survey cited, American public schools reported, on average, that 49 percent of their students were behind grade level in at least one subject during the beginning of the 2022–2023 school year. This is only a tiny improvement compared to the beginning of the 2021–2022 school year, when schools reported an average of 50 percent of their students were behind. Before the pandemic, schools reported that an average of 36 percent of their students were behind.

Gaps remained fairly stable across variables, though there were some regional differences. In the Northeast, schools reported that 31 percent of students were behind grade level pre-pandemic, a number that rose to 49 percent by the beginning of the 2022–2023 school year. Schools in the Midwest and South reported that 45 percent and 48 percent of their students were behind grade level in 2022–2023, respectively, up from 34 percent and 36 percent pre-pandemic.

Score declines were most pronounced among elementary and middle school students. While high schools only reported an increase of nine percentage points in students behind grade level, elementary and middle schools had increases of 14 percentage points and 15 percentage points, respectively.

These latest data show yet again how damaging the pandemic—and the months of school closures that followed—have been to American primary and secondary school students. Even a year after many schools have returned to in-person learning, large swaths of students are still behind.

Things didn’t have to be this way. Sweden, for example, never closed its primary schools, and according to one 2022 study in the International Journal of Educational Research, primary schoolchildren didn’t experience post-pandemic learning loss as measured by reading assessments.

“We can’t change the past. But we can learn from it,” wrote The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson last fall. “Democrats’ disproportionate support for school closures was very likely an unforced error that has contributed to worse achievement gaps between rich kids and poor kids, and that has set children back several years in math classes in which they were already struggling to demonstrate proficiency.”

Closing schools for months—or even years—during the COVID-19 pandemic was a disastrous policy, one that clearly has had an enduring impact on the children relegated to remote instruction. While many schools are making concerted efforts to close learning gaps, it’s unclear how long it will take to reverse COVID-era educational shortfalls.

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