In 2019, 28% of North Carolina eighth-graders lacked even basic reading skills and 29% lacked basic skills in math. Only about a third were proficient in these core subjects.
Regardless of region, sector, party, or ideology, no one was satisfied with the 2019 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the gold standard in independent evaluation of student learning. We all knew that without higher levels of reading and math proficiency, North Carolina’s economy would be smaller, our families poorer, and our communities weaker. We knew that while the schools of many other states were worse, North Carolina’s could still be better.
Now that the 2022 NAEP scores are out, we know something else: our task has gotten much harder.
According to the latest estimates, the share of North Carolina eighth-graders who lack basic skills expanded to 34% in reading and 39% in math. Proficiency rates dropped into the mid-20s. When discussing trends in test scores, we often focus on learning gaps by race, ethnicity, and family income, but it’s important to recognize that declines weren’t confined to disadvantaged children or those already struggling. In 2019, 11% of our eighth-graders demonstrated advanced skills in math. In 2022, that rate tumbled to 6%.
Not surprisingly, Republicans and conservatives who faulted Gov. Roy Cooper and other policymakers for keeping public schools closed too long during the COVID-19 pandemic seized on the NAEP scores as supporting evidence. Also not surprisingly, the Biden administration and other Democrats immediately spun the results differently, pointing out (correctly) that many places where schools reopened quickly had large test-score declines, as well.
Critics of long-term school closures have the better argument, however. According to separate analyses of the data by Brown University professor Emily Oster, Thomas Willburn of the online news outlet Chalkbeat, and Harvard professor Martin West (who also serves on NAEP’s governing board), the extent to which states provided face-to-face rather than online instruction was, indeed, related to the size of their test-score declines — although the correlations were in some cases rather modest.
North Carolina and many other states kept their public schools closed far longer than was justified by any fair-minded evaluation of the risks (both medical and educational). That being said, even if they’d been reopened quicker, the initial shutdowns and the pandemic’s ongoing disruptions of economic and family life would have hurt the performance of our students, anyway.
In other words, Cooper and like-minded officials in other states definitely made the wrong call. But relitigating the issue isn’t going to fix the present problem. North Carolina’s NAEP scores are in most cases lower than they were at the start of the 21st century.
Keep in mind that we don’t have NAEP scores for 2020 or 2021. It’s likely the learning loss was gigantic during those years, and perhaps bounced back a bit in 2022. That’s the pattern we can see in the state’s own annual testing program: 51% of our students scored at “grade-level proficiency” on state exams in 2022, up from a disastrous 45% in 2021 but still well below the 59% levels of 2017, 2018, and 2019. North Carolina also sets a higher bar, called “college and career ready,” for which the latest averages are even more sobering: 34% in 2022, compared with 30% in 2021 and 45% in 2019.
What now? In North Carolina, the political battle lines were formed years ago. Democrats think the best way to improve education is to spend vastly more tax dollars on public schools, including across-the-board pay raises for teachers and the employment of more instructional and non-instructional personnel. Republicans think the best approach is to give parents more choices, foster more competition among schools to make them more cost-effective, and reform the way we train, hire, evaluate, and compensate in order to attract and retain more-effective teachers.
You’ll hear a lot about these ideas over the coming months. The stakes are huge, as our abysmal NAEP results laid bare.