Teenage test scores declined pre-pandemic

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (the Center) show that test scores in both reading and math have declined for 13-year-old students. This is the first decline in half a century, according to the Center.

In light of school closures and “remote learning,” one might expect scores to decline. Except that these results are from before the pandemic.

The decline in scores is concentrated among the lowest-performing students. And the decline is consistent with the results of other, similar tests, which show decline at the academic bottom and improvement at the top.

Peggy Carr, the head of the Center said of her group’s findings:

This is more discouraging news about our students who are struggling to learn. Our struggling students are struggling more than they ever have before.

Putting it this way begs the question, in my view. The question is: Are the low-achieving students actually struggling to learn or are they increasingly giving up the struggle? Put another way: Is the system selling these students short or are the students selling themselves short?

Maybe the answer is, both. But I suspect that, increasingly, students — including a great many white males — are checking themselves out of the serious education process, and that this explains the lower scores. The trend likely accelerated when pandemic-induced remote learning made it all the more tempting to opt out.

I’m just speculating here. However, the Center’s data show that more than three times the percentage of 13-year-olds never or hardly ever read for fun than was the case in 1984. For nine-year-olds, the percentage doubled in that period. A whole lot of “checking out” seems to occur between the ages of nine and 13.

When it comes to math, the numbers show a decline in the share of 13-year-olds who are taking algebra or pre-algebra. More evidence of “checking out.”

That’s at the low end. I suspect that, at the high end, many students — especially certain groups of immigrants — are more committed than ever to high academic achievement.

If my suspicions are right, there’s no obvious fix to the declining performance. You can’t force people to be ambitious. The most you can do is change the incentives. That might improve things at the margins.

However, I doubt the powers-that-be will respond to the declining results this way. The response is more likely to take the form of greater spending and a lowering of standards.