Students’ performance on New Mexico’s 2022 standardized tests earlier this year provided a stark reminder of the lingering effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, and of the status of the education system across the state.

But results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” suggest that New Mexico isn’t alone.

New Mexico fourth and eighth graders overall lost ground in both math and reading, setbacks that were in large part due to the pandemic, officials say. That was also the case across the country, national education officials told reporters on Friday.

“This is what we expected,” Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus told the Journal, adding that the scores are “not acceptable” and “not OK.”

New Mexico fourth graders fell about 14 points behind national public school student averages overall. The same was true for eighth graders in math, but they only lagged about 11 points behind in reading.

In math, New Mexico fourth and eighth graders dropped about 10 points from state scores in 2019. They lost less ground in reading, where fourth graders dropped about five points and eighth graders dropped four.

That came out to reading and math proficiency rates of 21% and 19% among fourth graders, respectively, which was about 3% and roughly 10% lower than in 2019.

A little over 18% percent of eighth graders were proficient in reading and about 13% were proficient in math — a drop of 5% and 8%, respectively.

The results came from a sample of about 4,300 students. Steinhaus said NAEP tests were conducted in 29% of elementary schools and 42% of middle schools. The highest possible score on the NAEP test is 500.

New Mexico was in decent company, with most of the United States suffering similar setbacks because of the COVID-19 pandemic. No state, for example, improved in fourth or eighth grade math, and only a few states did so in reading — and if they did, it was by a maximum of two points.

“The results in today’s Nation’s Report Card are appalling and unacceptable,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a Friday call with reporters. “But let’s also be very clear here — the data prior to the pandemic did not reflect an education system that was on the right track. The pandemic simply made it worse.”

National Center for Education Statistics Commissioner Peggy Carr noted that each state’s varying response to the pandemic, especially in terms of when students returned to in-person learning, was an influential — but not deciding factor in test performance results.

“There’s nothing in this data that says we can draw a straight line between the time spent in remote learning … and student achievement,” she said during the Friday call.

Historically underserved students

Across the board, student groups identified in New Mexico’s landmark Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit lagged behind their national and statewide peers. They also almost all had lower scores this year than in 2019 — with a few exceptions.

In 2018, a judge found in that lawsuit that those students — including those who are Indigenous, economically disadvantaged, English learners and students with disabilities — had been denied a uniform, sufficient public education system.

“The students who were in families impacted by poverty had a greater negative impact because of the pandemic,” Steinhaus said, noting that Yazzie-Martinez students represent over 70% of New Mexico students. “So the pandemic impacted us harder than a lot of other states.”

Math scores for students identified in the lawsuit this year were worse for both grades than they were before the pandemic.

For the most part, students identified in New Mexico’s lawsuit also fared worse around the country this year than in 2019.

But one bright spot among New Mexico’s data was that eighth graders in those student groups almost universally improved their reading scores from 2019, even if only by a point. Nationally, that was also true for eighth grade English learners, and eighth graders with disabilities’ scores didn’t change.

Some solutions

Teachers this year said they felt more overworked, according to surveys given to them in conjunction with the test, and some said they felt less confident that they would be able to help their students close pandemic-related gaps.

“Clearly, our teachers need our help,” Carr said.

To address that problem, Steinhaus said the state is continuing an ongoing effort to bolster its mental health support for teachers and students alike.

New Mexico is also rolling out more tutoring for students and families, particularly those in schools with high populations of economically-disadvantaged families.

In January, Steinhaus added, the state Public Education Department aims to roll out more high-dosage tutoring — focused, small-group tutoring three times a week — which will also emphasize math.

“We’ve got to continue improving literacy. But this year, our primary focus is going to be on mathematics,” he said.