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Let’s read between the lines of the 2022 report cards on reading and math

AP Photo/Ron Harris
Third-grade students take part in a small group reading session at Beecher Hills Elementary School on Aug. 19, 2022, in Atlanta. Mounting evidence shows that students who took part in remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic lost about half of an academic year of learning.

Last week, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the nation’s 2022 report card and the scores were startlingly low. Fourth- and eighth-grade students from more than 10,000 schools nationwide performed at record low levels in spring of 2022 on reading and math scores, with deep disparities by state and grade level. More students scored at “below basic” levels than ever before. 

This report comes just a week after we learned that nearly half — 42 percent — of high school students who took the ACT in 2022 failed to meet any of the benchmarks of college readiness, according to the 2022 ACT report released on Oct. 12. Only 1 in 5 students in the graduating class of 2022 met the benchmarks — reporting the lowest average score in more than three decades. It is the first time since 1991 that the average ACT composite score was below 20, and is the fifth consecutive year of decline.

Since these reports’ release, news headlines have emphasized these results as yet another example of learning loss since the COVID-19 pandemic. And although ACT and NAEP scores were trending downward before the pandemic upended school experiences as we know it, these data are being used to promote a destructive deficit framing that could further fail our nation’s adolescents.

What’s not being said is that framing the next generation as inadequate and failing is toxic and dangerous. Before jumping to conclusions that these reports confirm the harmful learning loss narrative dominating the discourse, let’s remember that the 1.3 million students in the U.S. high school graduating class of 2022 who took the ACT were sophomores, and the nearly 500,000 students who completed NAEP were second- and sixth-graders, in the spring of 2020. 

Let’s read between the lines of the report.

Let’s see 16-year-old students who didn’t get to finish their 10th grade spring semester, who missed their finals, concerts, dances and games. Let’s see the students who were getting their learner’s permits, working papers for their first jobs, and solidifying a new status of relationships with peers when their world closed because of the virus.

Let’s see the students who had their safety net ripped out from under them at a time when their bodies were already transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Let’s see the students who lived in a heightened state of fear and anxiety while their routines and relationships imploded. Let’s see the students who may have watched their families ration food, toiletries and cleaning supplies. Some students watched the adults around them react in fear and anger instead of grieving.

Let’s see the students who completed their upper-level coursework in their penultimate year of high school, and the 8-year-old students who were forced to make the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” in novel online and hybrid environments, with teachers and school systems who were building the plane as they were flying it through turbulence from rapidly evolving health and safety conditions, risks and guidelines.  

Let’s see the students who spent their after-school and evening hours completing homework from the backseat of a car while their parents delivered groceries for Instacart since they were among the over 6 million households who experienced unemployment and this was one way to make a wage.

Let’s see the adolescents who stopped submitting their homework, or were falling asleep in class, because on top of their circadian rhythms not being designed for the earlier start time prior to the pandemic, they spent their nights and early mornings caretaking at home for younger siblings due to their parents’ COVID- response work hours.

Let’s see the students who did not see their primary caregiver for weeks at a time because of their parents’ frontline professions as doctors, nurses and medical support staff. Let’s see the record rates of disconnection and loneliness among children and adolescents.

Let’s see the over 200,000 students who lost a primary caregiver to COVID. Let’s see the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on families of color. Let’s see the students who lived through school shootings and acts of violence close to home. Let’s see the record long wait lists for behavioral health care.  

Let’s remember that suicide is the second leading cause of death among children ages 10-14 and adolescents ages 15-24. Let’s remember that, at the same time, only 20 percent of our nation’s adolescents met the threshold for high school readiness and nearly 20 percent of our nation’s young people reported serious thoughts of suicide.

Our nation’s youth do not need another reason to feel like they aren’t good enough, smart enough or enough — right now, nor ever. Let’s read between the lines of these reports and shift the narrative from “deficient” to “proficient” for our nation’s next generation.

Christina Cipriano, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine and director of research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She is a Yale Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @drchriscip.

Tags ACT test high school exams National Assessment of Educational Progress pandemic effect on learning

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