Report: Alabama leads nation in math, reading recovery after pandemic

By Trisha Powell Crain

Spanish teacher Alma Martínez helps an EL student with his classwork. Martínez was one of the first English language learners to graduate from Russellville High School. Rebecca Griesbach 

Alabama students led the nation in maintaining math and reading learning during the pandemic, according to a new national analysis.

The state is among the top 10 of states that either improved or lost the least amount of learning in math and reading.

And at the district level, Alabama schools also were among the top in the country for learning gains among Black and Hispanic students.

In data shared exclusively with the Associated Press and newsroom partners, including’s Education Lab, researchers compared state and national test scores for 2019 and 2022. Out of states and districts analyzed, Alabama schools ranked:

  • Among the top 10 school districts in the country for preserving learning of Black and Hispanic students.
  • Among the top 10 school districts in the country for improving learning in math.
  • Among the top 10 school districts in the country for improving learning in reading.

Alabama Superintendent Eric Mackey said this analysis aligns with data released earlier this week from the Nation’s Report Card and state test data, all showing progress.

“To me,” Mackey said, “it’s just one more verification that we do have the right set of standards, we do have the right test, and we do have the right instructional model.

“Lots of work to do,” Mackey said, “but we’re on the right path.”

Alabama, which was just recently considered one of the worst states in the country for educational outcomes, might now be in a position to help the rest of the country assess options for improvement, said research director Tom Kane, from Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research, who worked on the analysis.

“Schools in Alabama weathered the pandemic better than schools in many other states,” he said. “Alabama schools can now use their federal COVID relief dollars to move forward, while much of the rest of the country repairs the damage left by the pandemic. Rather than having to spend the money on adding instructional time, Alabama schools are free to invest in other evidence-based reforms for the long-term, such as science-based reading instruction.”

Alabama stands out

Hoover City Schools landed on four of the analysis’ national top 10 lists for districts with strong learning gains for poor students, Black students and Hispanic students.

Superintendent Dee Fowler told he attributed those gains to the district’s commitment to keep schools open for in-person instruction during the pandemic.

“Kids learn best with a teacher,” he said.

“Another thing that I think helped us tremendously is that we used a lot of the federal money for interventionists [during the 2021-22 school year],” he added, saying they’ve retained many of the interventionists for this school year, too.

The district’s chief learning officer, Chris Robbins, said the national analysis matches results the district has been tracking.

“It’s consistent with what we’ve seen,” he said. “The smaller measures of formative and summative [tests] that we’ve been using have been really encouraging.”

Robbins, like Mackey, pointed to new math and English language arts standards adopted since 2018, which Robbins said are more rigorous.

“This has been a hard season. And it’s exciting to see that their efforts are paying off,” Robbins said of efforts from parents, teachers and students. “Our students have worked hard, our families have worked hard. And they deserve a pat on the back.”

District- and state-level wins

For the Education Recovery Scorecard, researchers made comparisons at the state level and separately at the district level, looking at where kids were in 2019 and where they are as of spring 2022. Changes are measured by the number of grade levels earned or lost over that period of time.

Alabama ranked third among all states for preserving learning in reading, though students still lost the equivalent of a few weeks of school. In other words, the average student tested in 2019 lost only a few weeks of achievement in reading compared to the average student in the same grade tested in 2022.

Louisiana and Hawaii were the only states to increase reading scores, equivalent to an additional month of learning from 2019 to 2022.

Students in Maine, Delaware, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Oregon showed the highest levels of reading loss, with more than half a year lost or more.

In math, no state showed an increase in scores from 2019 to 2022, but Alabama got the top ranking among states because students lost the least among states in the analysis – the equivalent of about six weeks of learning.

In 2022, Delaware, D.C. and Maryland students all tested a full grade level behind their 2019 peers, with Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Virginia all losing more than 90% of a school year of learning during the same time period.

The district-level analysis included data from 3,700 school districts in 29 states and D.C.

Comparing those results, Alabama school districts dominated the national top 10 rankings in reading and math gains for Black and Hispanic students and made strong gains for all students, too.

In reading, among all students, two districts in Alabama – Pike Road and Butler County – were in the top 10 nationwide, each showing more than half a year’s gains in reading.

Among the top 10 highest-performing districts in math, seven were in Alabama. The numbers represent the difference in grade level that students in third through eighth grade in 2022 scored compared to third through eighth graders in 2019.

For example, in the table below, students tested in Piedmont City schools in 2022 had skills one and one-quarter grade levels higher than students who tested in 2019. In other words, Piedmont’s students completely avoided learning loss and instead gained more than a grade level of learning over students in 2019.

Learning gains – Math – 2019 to 2022

Of 3,700 school districts in 29 states and D.C., students in these 10 districts showed the highest learning gains on state tests from 2019 to 2022. Gains are expressed in grade levels.

National alarm bells

At the national level, the Education Recovery Scorecard analysis found the average student lost more than half a school year of learning in math and a quarter of a year in reading. Some district averages slipped by more than double those amounts, or worse.

Online learning played a major role, experts said, but students lost significant ground even where they returned quickly to schoolhouses, especially in math scores in low-income communities.

The implications for kids’ futures are alarming: Lower test scores are predictors of lower wages and higher rates of incarceration and teen pregnancy, Kane said.

“This is not just about test scores,” he said. “This is a leading indicator of students’ future well being that has declined sharply.”

“The whole village needs to hear the bell ringing, not just schools.”

Sean Reardon, a Stanford University professor and director of the Educational Opportunity Project said the new analysis, which quantifies learning loss in math and reading at the district level, allows a more local look for communities to know what’s happening in their child’s school.

“School districts are the first line of action to help children catch up,” Reardon said. “The better they know about the patterns of learning loss, the more they’re going to be able to target their resources effectively to reduce educational inequality of opportunity and help children and communities thrive.”