Academic disruptions caused by COVID-19 erased decades of progress in math and reading scores across the country and Maine students showed some of the largest declines, according to the results of a national test conducted by the United States Department of Education.

An empty classroom at Scarborough Middle School in April 2020. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In some cases, Maine scores dropped to the lowest point measured since the national assessments began 30 years ago.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “the nation’s report card,” is based on a math and reading exam given to hundreds of thousands of randomly selected fourth and eighth grade students across the country this year and is the first comprehensive look at how America’s students are faring after more than two years of pandemic learning.

From coast to coast, U.S. students’ test scores in math and reading declined between 2019 and this year.

“These scores highlight what we already knew – public schools, student-teacher relationships and classroom connections play a critical role in the academic and social-emotional growth and success of our children,” Heather Whitaker, an alternative education teacher at Gorham Middle School, said in an email Monday night.

In Maine, reading scores dropped to their lowest level ever for both fourth and eighth graders.


Maine fourth grade math scores hit their lowest point since 2003 and eighth grade math scores dropped to their lowest point since 1992, the earliest year exam scores are available for the state of Maine.

Although no state was spared the academic impact of the pandemic, Maine student test scores took some of the most significant plunges compared to other states.

“I don’t find (the drop in test scores) surprising at all. When you don’t have in-person learning it is going to have an impact,” said John Suttie, who taught for 20 years and now is superintendent of RSU 23 and principal of Old Orchard Beach High School.

“It’s going to take some time to get back to where we want to be, but I’m optimistic we will get there,” Suttie said during a phone interview Monday night. “We just have some work to do to catch up. During COVID, our top priority was keeping people healthy through remote learning. Now, we need to make up for the learning that we lost.”

Between 2019 and this year, Maine eighth grade reading scores dropped more than reading scores in any other state and fourth grade reading scores dropped more than any other New England state and most states in the country.

For example, Maine eighth graders’ reading scores declined by eight points between 2019 and this year. The national average was down three points.


Maine fourth grade students’ math test scores declined more than scores in any other New England state and eighth grade students’ math test scores declined more than all other New England states except Vermont.

Although Maine students saw their test scores drop more sharply from 2019 to this year compared with many other states, Maine students achieved levels of proficiency similar to those of the nation’s students on average in the subjects tested.

Proficiency is defined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress as “solid academic performance and competency over a challenging subject matter.”


“Keep in mind, the students tested were in second and sixth grades when the pandemic hit and the world as they knew it was disrupted,” Whitaker said. “This experience changed them. It’s our responsibility as educators to meet them where they are, identify the learning gaps and guide their learning moving forward.”

Nationally, the findings highlight the deep learning setbacks the pandemic caused for students. According to the nation’s report card findings, the pandemic erased decades of progress in education.


National reading scores for fourth and eighth graders dropped three points on a 500-point scale compared with 2019 – from 220 in 2019 to 217 this year for fourth graders and from 263 in 2019 and 260 this year for eighth graders.

Math scores dropped more precipitously, falling five points between 2019 and this year for fourth graders and eight points between 2019 and this year for eighth graders.

Prior to the pandemic, scores on the math test had been steadily rising for both fourth and eighth graders since 1990, the year the exams were first conducted. And scores on the reading test for both grades had been largely steady or rising slightly.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called the results of the nation’s report card “appalling and unacceptable,” in a call with reporters Friday. “We must treat the task of catching our children up with the urgency this moment demands,” he said.

In creating the 2022 nation’s report card, the U.S. Department of Education randomly selected and tested hundreds of thousands of fourth and eighth graders.

The exams are usually held every two years, but the exam was pushed from 2021 to 2022 because of the pandemic. This is the first time the test had been conducted since before the pandemic and is considered the most comprehensive national study of the pandemic’s impact on education to date.


However, Suttie, the RSU 23 superintendent, cautions that the NAEP report doesn’t give a complete picture of student learning.


“Test scores alone are not a complete indicator of a kid’s progress,” he said. “Kids have other skills like emotional intelligence and resiliency that don’t show up on a test. Test scores are just one piece of the puzzle.”

The Maine Department of Education also said the nation’s report card provides a very narrow view of Maine student achievement because of its infrequency and small sample size. A department spokesman said the sample size represents 2% of Maine’s pre-K to 12 students, but did not respond to a follow-up question about what percentage of fourth and eighth graders were tested.

The Maine DOE said state-administered assessments, which test more Maine students more frequently, better represent student performance. The results of the state exam show around 80 percent of Maine’s students achieving at or above grade level compared to national norms.

Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt agreed with the DOE’s assessment, saying that because the exam is only administered once every two years for some randomly selected fourth and eighth graders, it doesn’t tell a full story about how Maine’s students are doing.


“It’s a piece of data and a piece of information, but you have to look at the whole picture,” she said. Leavitt said the state and its educators are working hard to support students in pandemic recovery.

Maine DOE Director of Communications Marcus Mrowka said the department will “continue to promote immersive, hands-on, interdisciplinary learning experiences that reengage students and expand learning opportunities to help them recover from pandemic disruptions.

“In the coming year, we will continue to partner closely with parents, teachers, school staff and communities to ensure that students are being given every opportunity to succeed in the future.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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