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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

NAEP: Students in Wisconsin, Milwaukee lost more ground in math than reading during pandemic

Letter posters are displayed in a bilingual classroom at Milwaukee's H.W. Longfellow School.
Emily Files
Letter posters are displayed in a bilingual classroom at Milwaukee's H.W. Longfellow School.

Wisconsin students appear to have weathered pandemic learning disruptions better than the national average. But students still lost ground, particularly in math.

That’s according to new data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Also known as the Nation’s Report Card, it captures how a nationally representative sample of fourth and eighth graders are doing in the core subjects of math and reading.

The latest round of testing, which took place last spring, provides one of the clearest pictures of how the pandemic affected learning.

First let’s look at the national picture. The starkest drop is in math. Just one in four eighth graders tested proficient in math, compared to one in three before the pandemic in 2019.

"These mathematics results are historic," said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees the NAEP. Carr spoke to reporters Friday, before the results were publicly released Monday. "This is because they are the largest decline in mathematics we have observed in the entire history of this assessment [going back to the 1990s.]"

Carr says eighth grade math scores are pivotal, because they indicate whether students can handle challenging math classes in high school and eventually pursue careers in STEM fields.

The national picture when it comes to reading is slightly better. Fourth grade reading declined just two percentage points, from 35% proficient in 2019 to 33% in 2022. Eighth grade reading fell from 34% proficient to 31%.

"There were no improvements in fourth grade reading in any state," said Carr. "Average fourth grade reading scores declined in 30 states and jurisdictions and did not change in 22."

Wisconsin is one of the states where fourth grade reading didn't change much. Wisconsin saw the biggest drop in eighth grade math, from 41% of students proficient to 33%.

Overall, Wisconsin saw smaller declines than the national average in both subjects.

“The results released today reiterate trends we have seen across the nation as students continue to recover from learning disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wisconsin State Superintendent Jill Underly said in a statement. “Recovery is a continuous journey, and we haven’t yet reached a destination we are satisfied with, nor do we just want to return to where we were before.”

The Nation’s Report Card doesn’t have school district-level data in most cases. But it does produce data for 26 of the country’s largest urban districts, including Milwaukee.

Milwaukee’s story is similar to the national one: math scores were hit harder than reading. In Milwaukee, fourth grade math declined the most, with just 11% of students proficient in 2022 compared to 17% in 2019.

But in reading, the national assessment found the percent of the Milwaukee students who were proficient in 2022 was not significantly different than in 2019.

"I think the results have bright spots that we’re very pleased with," MPS Director of Research and Assessment Melanie Stewart told WUWM. "But our overall performance is not where we want it to be. I think this provides some optimism, but we need to move all of our students to higher and higher levels of achievement."

Peggy Carr said the urban districts, like MPS, fared better in reading than you might expect.

"The majority of the districts had scores at both grades that remained stable," Carr said. "They were steady compared to 2019. This is somewhat of a remarkable contrast to the nation and most states. In fact, unlike the nation, the average reading score for eighth graders in large cities did not decline and remained steady in comparison to 2019."

Many of the urban districts remained virtual for longer periods of time than their suburban counterparts. Milwaukee was virtual for almost the entire 2020-21 school year.

While Wisconsin and Milwaukee data could have been worse, there is still a lot of room for improvement. The national assessment shows Wisconsin has the largest Black-white achievement gaps compared to any other state or jurisdiction except Washington D.C.

“We’ve known Wisconsin’s racial disparities in assessment results are among the widest in the nation for too long, and these troubling results are yet one more indication that we must close the opportunity gap in our state,” State Superintendent Underly said in her statement.

Even though Milwaukee’s reading scores held fairly steady, it still ranks toward the bottom of urban districts in overall achievement. In fourth grade reading, for example, Milwaukee is only ahead of Baltimore, Cleveland and Detroit.

Editor's note: MPS is a financial contributor to WUWM. This story has been updated.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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