Maine has continued an 11-year pattern of generally declining test scores and for the first time fell below the national average.
Maine students continued a long-term decline in reading and math scores in the first National Assessment of Educational Progress given since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The exam showed declines across the country. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine students’ reading and math scores slipped below the national average for the first time and continued an 11-year pattern of generally declining test scores, according to the first national test data published since the pandemic that showed COVID-19’s academic toll.

Maine was one of 43 states whose students lost years of academic progress in math and reading in the first National Assessment of Educational Progress given since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2022 scores from the assessment were released Monday. The exam is generally given every other year to randomly selected samples of students in each state. The pandemic delayed the 2021 exam until 2022.

Math scores for Maine eighth-graders dropped nine points since 2019 from 282 to 273, the national average. Fourth-graders’ average math scores dropped eight points, from 241 to 233, which was below the national average score of 235.

Maine students didn’t fare much better in reading. The Pine Tree State’s eighth-graders reported an average reading test score of 257, an eight-point drop from 2019’s score of 265 and two points below the national average score of 259. Fourth-graders tested at 213, an eight-point drop from the reported 2019 score of 221, and three points below the national average score at 216.

Maine students’ test scores have slowly declined since 2011, when fourth-graders reported average math and reading scores of 244 and 222, respectively, and eighth-graders reported average test scores of 289 in math and 270 in reading.

The 2022 test scores were the first comprehensive assessment to show the academic toll on students from pandemic-related disruptions, as COVID-19 forced educators to pivot to remote learning and schools struggled to contain outbreaks when they reopened for in-person instruction, causing continued disruptions. In Maine, most students experienced a combination of in-person and remote learning in the first full school year following the pandemic’s start.

Maine’s 2022 test scores were in line with an overall stark decline for most U.S. states, especially in math, as NAEP reported the largest decrease since it began testing in the 1990s.

The Maine data did not show test scores by district. A spokesperson for the state Department of Education and two Bangor-area educators said the test scores did not take into account how devastating COVID was for students, academically, socially and mentally. 

“I don’t believe anyone has ever measured what happens to learning in the wake of a worldwide pandemic,” Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer said. “No assessment tool exists for that, so a few tests that were based on how things used to be measured shouldn’t be a call to panic.”

Bangor Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kathy Harris-Smedberg said the test scores weren’t unexpected, but they were inconsistent with other state test counterparts, like the Northwest Evaluation Association test, which showed less dramatic drops in students’ math and reading scores. 

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education argued the data provided limited insight into students’ academic well-being because it was based on test scores from only 2 percent of Maine’s school-aged population.

“Maine’s state assessment on the other hand is administered three times a year to grades three to eight, and grade 10 and it measures academic achievement and academic growth over time, providing a more comprehensive and thorough analysis of educational outcomes,” Marcus Mrowka said.

“The Maine state assessment for the 2021-2022 school year indicates that roughly 80 percent of students tested at or above their grade level compared to national norms.”

The state, however, has not released district-by-district test data since the 2018-19 school year.

Students’ presence in school full time will help offset some of the academic losses, as teachers help them address gaps in learning, Harris-Smedberg said. 

“That’s the biggest thing that’s going to help us [by] not having 10 days when people are out because of COVID,” she said. 

“Just being back in school is one of the biggest things that we can do in Bangor. What we’re finding is that we have a very strong curriculum, and we’re really following that curriculum.”

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.