A recent study, the Program for International Student Assessment, has revealed significant global setbacks in student learning during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. This comprehensive study, the first of its kind to examine academic progress during the pandemic, found that average international math scores dropped by an equivalent of three-quarters of a year of learning, while reading scores fell by half a year.
These educational setbacks affected countries across various economic statuses, with a notable increase in the number of students now considered low performers in math, reading, and science. Administered in 2022 to 15-year-olds in 37 OECD member countries and 44 partner countries, the assessment was delayed by a year due to the pandemic and marks a stark contrast to previous trends, the Associated Press reported.
Significantly, Germany, Iceland, and the Netherlands experienced substantial drops in math scores, around 25 points or more, indicating a notable decline in learning. The average math score across all countries fell by about 15 points from the 2018 tests, an unprecedented change given that neither subject had previously seen a shift of more than five points. However, science scores remained relatively stable since 2018.
In the United States, which traditionally lags in math, the average math score fell by 13 points, but reading and science scores remained mostly steady. This resulted in the U.S. improving its ranking to 26th in math, 6th in reading, and 10th in science. The U.S. scores in science and reading were slightly higher than the international average.
Peggy Carr, head of the National Center for Education Statistics, commented on the U.S. performance, noting that while the whole world struggles with math, the U.S. experienced comparatively fewer setbacks.
“The whole world is struggling with math, and we are not immune from that,” Carr said. “Everyone had struggles during the pandemic. What we’re seeing here is we had less.”
The findings align with national studies in individual countries, including the U.S., where math scores saw the most significant drop ever, and reading scores declined to levels not seen since 1992.
The OECD cautioned against attributing the academic decline solely to the pandemic, noting pre-existing trends in science and reading scores and variable impacts of school closures. The study highlighted that other factors like remote teaching quality and student support played significant roles in learning outcomes during the pandemic.
Singapore emerged as a top performer in all subjects, joined by other East Asian countries like Japan and China, as well as nations like Estonia, Canada, and Ireland. Contrarily, Albania, Jordan, and Iceland saw the most significant decreases in math scores.
In response to the U.S. results, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona attributed the relative success to President Joe Biden’s investments in education, including significant pandemic relief funds. However, he emphasized the need for improvement, particularly in math, to enhance America’s global competitiveness and leadership.
“We cannot be complacent at home,” he said, “not when math is critical to our global competitiveness and leadership.”