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74% of Ohio 8th graders not hitting math benchmarks, 65% of 4th grade readers are also behind

empty school rooms with desks
MChe Lee

More than a majority of American 4th graders and 8th graders are not meeting reading and math benchmarks, including Ohioans, according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2024 Kids Count Data Book.

The problem isn’t unique to Ohio, and it isn't new, according to advocates at the Children's Defense Fund Ohio. The organization argues the lack of proficiency will lead to big economic consequences.

The data, which examines all 50 states, shows the number of 4th graders not proficient in reading was already above 50% in 2019, with 66% of American students and 64% of Ohioan students scoring below proficiency. From there, it inched up to 68% of kids nationwide and 65% of 4th graders in Ohio.

The number of 8th graders testing below proficiency in math rose more dramatically. Sixty-two percent of students in Ohio tested below proficiency in 2019. That rose to 71% in 2022. In the United States, the figure rose from 67% of 8th graders to 74%.

A news release about the report from the Children’s Defense Fund states the bad numbers reflect a trend of slipping proficiency that started before the COVID-19 pandemic. If left unaddressed, the students' future earnings will take a $900 billion hit, and so will the economy.

The report has been issued for 35 years and is designed to measure student scores and circumstances. The Children's Defense Fund states that the decline of basic reading and math skills is "a problem decades in the making but brought to light by the focus on learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Unprecedented drops in learning from 2019 to 2022 amounted to decades of lost progress. Chronic absences have soared, with children living in poverty especially unable to resume their school day routines on a regular basis, according to the report.

But the problems are much larger than the pandemic.

The Casey Foundation report contends that the pandemic is not the sole cause of lower test scores. Educators, researchers, policymakers and employers who track students’ academic readiness have been ringing alarm bells for a long time.

The report states U.S. scores in reading and math have barely budged in decades. Compared to peer nations, the United States is not equipping its children with the high-level reading, math and digital problem-solving skills needed for many of today’s fastest-growing occupations in a highly competitive global economy.

This lack of readiness is predicted to result in major harm to the nation’s economy and to youth as they join the workforce.

Up to $31 trillion in U.S. economic activity hinges on helping young people overcome learning losses caused by the pandemic. Students who don’t advance beyond lower levels of math are more likely to be unemployed after high school. One analysis calculates the drop in math scores between 2019 and 2022 will reduce lifetime earnings by 1.6% for 48 million pandemic-era students, which would be a total of $900 billion in lost income.

The state can help improve outcomes by making sure all students have the necessary resources to achieve success.

Free school lunches would be a good first step, The Casey Foundation argues. "Research has long shown that student success can be impacted by the availability of food," the release states.

The foundation also says schools should also do something to correct chronic absenteeism, expand tutoring services and invest more state resources in public schools.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.