Pandemic Learning Loss Hit the U.S. Hard. It’s as Bad or Worse Across the World. | Mint

Pandemic Learning Loss Hit the U.S. Hard. It’s as Bad or Worse Across the World.

An international assessment was administered last year for the first time since the pandemic. PHOTO: MATT ROURKE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
An international assessment was administered last year for the first time since the pandemic. PHOTO: MATT ROURKE/ASSOCIATED PRESS


U.S. 15-year-olds performed above international averages in reading and science tests, but still ranked low in math.

The most comprehensive global look at test scores since the pandemic shows learning loss is a stubborn worldwide problem, with American 15-year-olds experiencing similar or slightly less severe setbacks compared with peers in other countries.

Economically developed nations saw substantial drops in reading and math on international exams, according to new data released Tuesday. U.S. scores also declined sharply in math but held roughly steady in reading.

Among 37 participating countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which coordinates the exam, the U.S.’s scores now rank sixth in reading, 12th in science and 28th in math. These were slight improvements compared with 2018, the last time the exam was given.

Graphic: WSJ
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Graphic: WSJ

“Learning loss due to the pandemic was a global phenomenon," said Martin West, the academic dean at Harvard Graduate School of Education. “We’ve never seen, in an international assessment, consistent declines across a large number of school systems in the way we see here."

The Program for International Student Assessment was administered last year to 15-year-olds in math, reading and science. That included a sample of 4,600 U.S. students who were typically in 10th grade when they took the test.

U.S. students’ math scores fell by 13 points between 2018 and 2022, compared with a decline of 15 points for the typical country in the OECD. Twenty points is roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of learning.

In reading, OECD countries fell by 10 points on average, while the U.S. scores were statistically unchanged. Science results were essentially flat in both the U.S. and in OECD countries overall.

Several countries—including Canada, Estonia and Japan—performed better than average on all three exams.

Graphic: WSJ
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Graphic: WSJ

Researchers note that there is some statistical uncertainty around the scores and rankings since the results are based on only a sample of students.

National exams in the U.S. since the pandemic have shown declines in both reading and math for fourth- and eighth-graders. U.S. schools that were closed for longer tended to experience bigger declines in test scores, according to some studies.

The recent test was the first PISA exam since the pandemic disrupted children’s lives in and out of school. American students were more likely than students from other countries to say they had experienced lengthy school closures, according to a survey accompanying the test.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the international results show that the Biden administration’s emergency funding distributed to schools prevented a worse showing. “At an extremely tough time in education, the United States moved up in the world rankings," he said in a media call Monday.

Graphic: WSJ
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Graphic: WSJ

West said that it is too soon to say whether the extra money for schools, including $123 billion in the Biden-backed American Rescue Plan, has helped students recover.

Cardona said American schools do need to improve their instruction in math, an area where the country has long lagged behind on PISA.

U.S. scores have held roughly steady in reading and science since the early 2000s, even as many other countries have seen their scores fall.

Countries’ scores are seen as the product of both their educational system and factors outside of school, including socioeconomic circumstances. PISA exams have long been closely watched as a measure of a country’s educational success and economic competitiveness.

In the latest results, PISA researchers note that participation in the exams is voluntary in the U.S., which creates some risk of bias. Participation among private-school students was particularly low.

Write to Matt Barnum at

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