Students around the world suffered huge learning setbacks during the pandemic, study finds

by Joshua Brown
Pandemic's Impact on Student Learning

A recent study has shed light on the significant educational setbacks endured by students worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. This comprehensive investigation, conducted as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), represents the first in-depth analysis of students’ academic progress across numerous countries during this challenging period. The findings, unveiled recently, reveal a distressing decline in both math and reading scores, the ramifications of which have reverberated across nations, irrespective of their economic status or size.

The most striking revelation in this study is the staggering dip in international math scores, equivalent to a setback of approximately three-quarters of a year’s worth of learning. The reading scores were not spared either, experiencing a decline equivalent to half a year of learning. This decline in academic performance has transformed a quarter of the countries under scrutiny into low performers in math, reading, and science, signifying their struggle to tackle fundamental math problems or comprehend basic texts.

Traditionally administered every three years, this latest round of testing was postponed by a year due to the pandemic. It was administered in 2022 to a sample of 15-year-olds from 37 countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), along with 44 partner countries. The OECD has been conducting these tests since the turn of the century.

The report paints a stark picture of an “unprecedented drop in performance.” Alarmingly, countries such as Germany, Iceland, and the Netherlands saw math scores plummet by 25 points or more, a drop considered equivalent to a year’s worth of learning. The average math score across all participating countries fell by about 15 points since the 2018 tests, with reading scores dropping by 10 points. This represents a departure from previous assessments, where neither subject had witnessed a change of more than five points. Fortunately, there was a silver lining in the realm of science, where scores remained relatively stable since 2018.

In the United States, a nation historically trailing in math, the average math score dipped by 13 points, while reading and science scores remained relatively steady. Consequently, the country improved its math ranking to 26th place, up three spots from 2018. It ranked 6th in reading and 10th in science, climbing two and one spot, respectively. It is worth noting that America’s math score aligned closely with the international average, while its science and reading scores were marginally higher.

Peggy Carr, the head of the National Center for Education Statistics, emphasized that the entire world grappled with math challenges during the pandemic, even though the United States was not exempt. These results echo individual country reports highlighting severe and persistent academic setbacks, particularly in math. For instance, a national study in the U.S. last year revealed the steepest decline in math scores, with reading scores regressing to levels last seen in 1992.

It is crucial to acknowledge that while the pandemic undoubtedly played a significant role in these global setbacks, the OECD warns against attributing all the blame to COVID-19. The report points out that science and reading scores had already been on a downward trajectory before the pandemic in some countries, including Belgium, Finland, Canada, and France. Additionally, the link between school closures and academic setbacks appears to be less direct than previously assumed. A survey of students revealed that approximately half experienced closures lasting more than three months, but this did not consistently result in lower scores. The report suggests that various factors, such as the quality of remote teaching and support provided to struggling students, also influenced learning outcomes during this period.

Among the nations evaluated, Singapore, a renowned education powerhouse, stood out with the highest scores across all subjects. It was joined at the top by other East Asian countries like Japan and China. Estonia, Canada, and Ireland also secured spots among the high-performing nations.

Conversely, Albania witnessed the most significant decline in math scores, plummeting by a staggering 69 points, followed by Jordan with a 39-point drop and Iceland with a 36-point decline. Iceland’s decline pushed it below the U.S. and the OECD average, while Norway also saw a substantial 33-point drop, bringing it in line with the global average.

Notably, most of the countries that witnessed improvements in math scores initially had lower performance levels, including Saudi Arabia, the Dominican Republic, and Cambodia.

In the United States, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona attributed the relative success to President Joe Biden’s investments in education, including the allocation of $190 billion in pandemic relief funds to schools. However, he cautioned that math scores in the country remain persistently low, emphasizing the importance of addressing this issue for global competitiveness and leadership.

It is evident that the findings of this study underscore the severity of the educational challenges posed by the pandemic, which extend beyond national boundaries and necessitate concerted efforts to ensure a brighter future for students worldwide.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Pandemic’s Impact on Student Learning

What is the main finding of the study on student learning during the pandemic?

The main finding of the study is that students around the world experienced significant setbacks in math and reading scores during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How were these setbacks measured?

The study used international assessments, specifically the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), to measure the declines in math and reading scores.

Did the setbacks affect all countries equally?

No, the setbacks were widespread and affected nations rich and poor, large and small. Few countries showed improvement, with a quarter of those tested now considered low performers in math, reading, and science.

Were these declines solely due to the pandemic?

While the pandemic played a major role, the study indicates that some countries were already experiencing declining scores in math and reading before the pandemic. It also suggests that the link between school closures and academic setbacks was not always straightforward.

How did the United States fare in this study?

The United States saw a decline in math scores, but its reading and science scores remained relatively stable. As a result, the country improved its ranking in math but maintained strong positions in reading and science.

What are the implications of these findings for education?

These findings highlight the global impact of the pandemic on education and emphasize the need for concerted efforts to address the challenges students face in recovering from the setbacks in math and reading.

More about Pandemic’s Impact on Student Learning

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CuriousCat December 5, 2023 - 5:33 pm

So Singapore on top, no surprise there. Good job, tiny island!

EduExpert42 December 5, 2023 - 9:41 pm

USA not so bad, math down a bit, but reading & science okay. Other countries have it worse.

ConcernedParent December 5, 2023 - 10:29 pm

Hope they fix this, kids need better education!

ResearchGeek88 December 6, 2023 - 12:56 am

Important to remember, not all bad because of COVID, some countries already had problems before.

Reader123 December 6, 2023 - 9:39 am

Wow, this study shows big problems in skool during COVID, math & reading down a lot!


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