By Rami Ayyub
(Reuters) - U.S. students have suffered historic learning setbacks with math and reading scores falling to their lowest levels since before the COVID-19 pandemic, national exam results released on Monday showed, the latest sign of the damage school closures wrought on children.
Math scores saw their largest drop on record, a trend consistent across most U.S. states and almost all demographic groups, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the "Nation's Report Card."
The tests were administered to nationally representative samples of fourth- and eighth- graders between January and March 2022.
Reading scores declined for most jurisdictions, though not as dramatically as in math. Eighth-graders' math proficiency scores dropped by seven percentage points compared with 2019, results showed. Reading proficiency fell by two points.
The test is considered to be the first comprehensive, nationwide account of student performance since the onset of the pandemic. Previous studies documented similar dips in reading and math after political leaders and school districts shut down classrooms for "remote learning" online.
Among students kept home during the 2020-2021 school year, high performers had more frequent access to a computer, a quiet workspace and extra assistance from their teachers, NAEP said.
Higher-performing eighth-graders reported more participation in real-time video lessons with their teachers than their lower-performing peers, NAEP added.
Test scores dropped most sharply among minority children, and performance gaps between white students and their Black and Hispanic peers have widened since the exam was last proctored in 2019.
California issued a separate report on Sunday evening, showing that students in the nation's most populous state also showed declines in reading and math scores, although to a lesser degree. But California students lagged nationwide scores before the pandemic.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in a written statement described the test results as "appalling" but said they were a call for action.
"We must treat the task of catching our children up in reading and math with the urgency this moment demands," Cardona said.
Pandemic lockdowns were largely imposed by state governors and local officials. The U.S. government did not call for nationwide school closures under either the Trump or Biden administrations.
(This story has been refiled to fix typographical error in paragraph 8.)
(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Marguerita Choy)