Why Student Scores are Slipping and How Parents Can Help


When the results of The Nation’s Report Card were released last week, showing historic declines in student achievement, I can’t say I was surprised. The report highlights the extended impacts of COVID-related school disruptions. But I would suggest that the pandemic isn’t entirely to blame.

As an educator, who’s worked with students for nearly 30 years, I’ve witnessed a gradual decline in math and reading abilities that started well before Covid-related school disruptions. I believe this alarming downward trend started when schools, for the most part, either stopped assigning regular homework or significantly decreased the amount of nightly homework for general ed classes. Of course, this is varied by school and district, but it’s a trend we continue to see with our students.

In this article, I’ll break down the new test score data, explain three reasons I think contribute to the declining scores, and then share what parents and tutors can do to help kids catch up.

What we’re learning from The Nation’s Report Card

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which puts out The Nation’s Report Card, tests fourth and eighth graders on math and reading every few years. The results of the 2022 Nation’s Report Card, show average student test scores across the US dropped from pre-pandemic levels and are now at their lowest levels in a decade.

Reading Results:

  • 33% of fourth graders (down 3% since 2019) were proficient
  • 31% of eighth graders (down 3% since 2019) were proficient

Math Results:

  • 36% of fourth graders (down 5% since 2019) were proficient
  • 26% of eighth graders (down 8% since 2019) were proficient

Eighth grade is a pivotal moment in students’ mathematics education, as they develop key mathematics skills for further learning and potential careers in mathematics and science. If left unaddressed, this could alter the trajectories and life opportunities of a whole cohort of young people, potentially reducing their abilities to pursue rewarding and productive careers in mathematics, science, and technology.

– Daniel J. McGrath, U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, wrote in a press release announcing The Nation‘s Report Card Results for 2022

Listen to my interview on WTOP about The Nation’s Report Card results

Three contributing reasons behind the nation’s declining scores

1. Many public school students get very little homework, which means they aren’t practicing what they’re learning as much as they used to.

In the last decade, many school districts changed their homework policies so that elementary school students receive little to no homework. Typically, their homework is to read for 20 minutes every night. Middle school students have homework, but not as much as they used to. And in high school, it’s been my experience that unless the student is taking honors, IB, AP, or dual enrollment classes, they also get very little homework. 

Many of these homework policies were based on research that showed homework doesn’t have a significant impact on performance for students in K-5th grades. So many schools just did away with homework altogether and decided to give kids the opportunity to play outside and “be a kid.” But the reality is, that’s not what’s happening. They’re inside playing video games and watching TV.

2. Many students have gaps in their learning from Covid.

The majority of our tutors say their students now have foundational issues and simply need more instruction and practice to catch up. I call these students “Swiss Cheese” because, just like swiss cheese, they have holes in their learning. They have some of the pieces of a subject put together, but there are gaps in their learning that accumulate over time. 

Zoom room for math class

Math, math-based sciences, and foreign languages are cumulative subjects. Concepts build on one another. These subjects are very unforgiving if your child starts to fall behind. When students do not have a strong foundation in a subject like Pre-Algebra, more advanced concepts are next to impossible to grasp once they start Algebra. 

We are seeing this a lot right now with students who took Pre-Algebra, or Algebra, or learned skills like fractions, decimals, and percentages while Covid kept them away from the classroom. They didn’t get the personalized attention they would have received in a normal school setting. Now they’re back at school and in need of individualized attention to get the extra practice they need to get back on track for the next grade level.

3. Due to changing school standards, many of today’s students need an extra boost to help with organization, study skills, and planning.

This issue is something that we can’t quantify on tests. I believe there’s something to be said for a third grader to get a worksheet, to complete it somewhat independently, to put it in their homework folder, and then to take it out of the homework folder and turn it in. Since homework is now limited at many elementary schools, students are no longer accustomed to doing this each day. Although a nightly worksheet may not be significant, doing the homework teaches students personal responsibility, and how to stay organized and work independently.

In addition, we now live in a culture of cramming and grade inflation. Some school districts use “rolling gradebooks” and allow students to turn in late work or give them until the last day of the quarter or semester to retake tests. For kids that are self-motivated, this works. But the problem with this approach for many students who struggle with time management and have weak executive function skills is they will wait until the 11th hour to turn everything in instead of slowly working through the material over the course of the semester.

Older students also have a lot more leeway when applying for college. College admission standards started changing before the pandemic with the rise of the test-optional movement. Fewer high school students are now studying for and taking the SAT and ACT, and scores and college readiness benchmarks are declining. 

black ACT logo

Average ACT scores have dropped every year since 2018 and this year’s data shows ACT scores have fallen to the lowest level in 30 years. The average ACT score for this year’s class of incoming college freshmen was 19.8 out of a maximum of 36. Only 22% of ACT test-takers met college readiness benchmarks in English, math, reading, and science.

How parents and tutors can help children keep up

Ask your child’s teacher where they need help.

As a parent, one of the first things you can do when you notice your child is struggling with a certain subject is to reach out to the teacher. Ask questions like:

Do you see any gaps?”

If I were to help my child at home, what would be a good thing for me to do?

When my children were younger, I knew they both struggled with math facts, so I made them practice their multiplication tables at home. As a parent, I knew if they didn’t practice, they would fall behind. Even having your child practice something for five or ten minutes each weekday day can make a difference. And while the summer seems far out, it is a great time for students to keep up with skills and work to get ready for the next grade.

Get your child individualized help to fill in any gaps.

For “Swiss Cheese” students, nothing beats one-to-one academic attention. A tutor can help your child fill in the gaps, rebuild their foundation in the subject they’re struggling in, and get them confident and motivated to keep up in class.

If you think tutoring may be the best option to get your child back on track, we’re happy to walk you through some options. Click below to schedule a time to chat with one of our education experts.