Education worldwide experiences significant setbacks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new study reveals that students worldwide experienced significant setbacks in reading and math during the COVID-19 pandemic. The decline in test scores was so widespread that the United States actually climbed in global rankings just by falling behind less sharply.

According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which examined the academic progress of students in various countries during the pandemic, the average international math score dropped by the equivalent of three-quarters of a year of learning, while reading scores fell by the equivalent of half a year.

These setbacks were observed in nations of all economic statuses and sizes, with very few showing any improvement. In countries where students were tested, a quarter of them are now considered low performers in math, reading, and science.

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Math scores: Unprecedented decline

The latest round of tests, which usually take place every three years, was delayed by a year due to the pandemic. It was conducted in 2022 among a sample of 15-year-olds from 37 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), as well as 44 other partner countries. The OECD has been administering these tests since 2000.

The results of the new study indicate an “unprecedented drop in performance,” with countries like Germany, Iceland, and the Netherlands experiencing math score decreases of 25 points or even more. A 20-point drop is considered equivalent to a year of learning.

Across all countries participating in the study, the average math score declined by approximately 15 points since the previous test in 2018, while reading scores dropped by 10 points. Notably, neither subject had seen a change of more than five points in previous tests. However, science scores remained relatively stable since 2018.

In the United States, which has historically lagged behind in math, the average math score fell by 13 points. Reading and science scores remained mostly unchanged. Overall, the country improved its ranking to No. 26 in math, climbing three spots compared to 2018. In reading, it ranked 6th, and in science, it ranked 10th, climbing two and one spots, respectively.

The United States’ math score was on par with the international average, while its science and reading scores were slightly higher.

Peggy Carr, the head of the National Center for Education Statistics, acknowledged that math is a global struggle and that the United States is not immune to it. She mentioned that everyone faced challenges during the pandemic but highlighted that the country had fewer struggles compared to others.

Math scores remain problematic in the United States. Other countries teach math differently, resulting in higher achievement.

Not just learning loss due to the pandemic

The recent findings align with reports from individual countries indicating significant and persistent academic setbacks, particularly in math. A national study in the United States reported the largest-ever decline in math scores, with reading scores dropping to levels comparable to those in 1992.

While the pandemic undoubtedly disrupted education globally, the OECD warns against attributing all of the setbacks solely to COVID-19. It points out that science and reading scores were already declining before the pandemic, and several countries were already experiencing downward trends in math, including Belgium, Finland, Canada, and France.

The report suggests that the link between school closures and academic setbacks is not straightforward. Despite approximately half of the students surveyed experiencing school closures lasting more than three months, there was no clear difference in performance trends between countries with shorter closures (e.g., Iceland and Sweden) and those with longer closures (e.g., Brazil and Ireland).

The report states that many other factors influence learning during this period, such as the quality of remote teaching and the level of support provided to struggling students.

Singapore, known for its strong education system, achieved the highest scores in all subjects. Other high-performing countries include Japan, China, Estonia, Canada, and Ireland.

Albania experienced the most significant decline in math scores, with a staggering 69-point decrease. Jordan followed with a 39-point drop, and Iceland with a 36-point drop, causing it to fall below the United States and the OECD average. Norway fell by 33 points, reaching the global average.

Most countries that saw math gains had relatively low initial performance levels. These include Saudi Arabia, the Dominican Republic, and Cambodia.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona attributed America’s relative success to President Joe Biden’s investments in education, including the $190 billion granted to schools as pandemic relief by Congress. However, Cardona acknowledged that math scores in the United States remain persistently low.

Cardona emphasized the importance of not being complacent, as math is crucial for global competitiveness and leadership.

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