School test scores are creeping up in Washington state – but they still fall far short of pre-pandemic levels, new data shows. 

Around 40% of students who took the state’s standardized math test were at grade level this year, compared to 30% in the school year just after the pandemic started – 2020-21. On the English exam, the gains were smaller: half of kids met grade level, compared to 47.7% a few years ago. 

Zoom out farther, though, and it’s clear that kids are still well behind where they were before the pandemic. Since 2018-19, the most recent testing year before the pandemic began, kids are down nearly 10 percentage points in math and nearly nine percentage points in reading.  (Tests were canceled during the 2019-20 year.)

And those improvements? They’re largely concentrated in the younger grades. Students who were in eighth grade in spring 2023 did slightly worse than the eighth graders tested in spring 2021.  

Test scores plummeted across the country in the wake of the pandemic’s school closures. Experts generally agree that remote learning and pandemic hardships are behind the decline in academic performance. The gaps that existed before the upheaval — between students of color and white students, between rich and poor students — stuck around, and in some cases got worse. And school districts are about to run out of one-time pandemic relief funds from the federal government, a portion of which must be spent on funds for academic recovery. 

Washington public school students take their standardized tests sometime in the spring. Schools can access those scores a few weeks after the tests are administered, and families receive a final, paper report in the fall. In Seattle, they’re available on The Source platform. Scores for every school district are posted on the state education department’s website. (To look up a school’s scores, search for the school on To see scores by grade level, scroll down to “student performance – assessment” on the left side of the page.)


Many are calling for increased attention on older students, given that they have less opportunity to make up for lost time. Eighth graders today need around a school year’s worth of additional instruction to catch up in math on average, while in third grade, it’s just over a month, according to a recent national report from the think tank Center for Reinventing Public Education. (The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds both CRPE and The Seattle Times Education Lab.) 

The CRPE report, released this week, also highlighted increasing course failure rates and grade inflation among high school students – factors that cause a downstream decline in college and career readiness. In Washington, course failure rates didn’t go up, but the 2020-21 school year saw a massive uptick in the number of incomplete and noncredit grades. A quarter of all high-school students had a noncredit grade during that school year, a 42% increase compared with the prior year. 

The figures also skew by race. Between August 2020 and March 2021, around 11.3% of white students had an incomplete or no-credit grade. That figure was 21% for Hispanic/Latino students and 30% for Native American students.

It’s difficult to know exactly what school districts are doing for learning recovery; that’s been an opaque part of expense reporting under the federal pandemic relief funds. Some additional visibility is expected in the coming months as school districts comply with new and more detailed accounting requirements from the U.S. Department of Education. 

When it comes to what works to bump up these scores, high-intensity tutoring has had the spotlight for a couple years now. But only about 2% of children have had access to these types of services, according to a March 2023 study from the University of Southern California. 

Seattle parent Mike Preiner, who runs a math tutoring program focused on closing educational gaps, said he also didn’t see much happening with high-intensity tutoring in local schools. But since coaches began working with at-risk elementary school students at three Seattle schools, Preiner says they’ve seen a big shift in scores – with some cohorts seeing as much as a 45% difference in the number of students meeting state standards on the math exam. The Math Agency currently partners with James Baldwin Elementary (formerly Northgate Elementary), Leschi Elementary and TOPS K-8. 


“If you’re gonna increase student learning, there’s two ways to do it – increase time for practice, or increase the efficiency,” said Preiner. 

Math instruction builds upon itself more than any other subject, and missing a key concept has harsher consequences for students’ progress, Preiner said. Pandemic or not, if a student never gets that instruction down, it can cause a lot of frustration and withdrawal. 

“A fifth grade teacher at a struggling school has an impossible job. Some (students) are at a 6th grade level, and some at a 2nd grade level. As soon as you break it up and work one on one, it’s a lot easier,” he said.

The Math Problem: Addressing the nation’s education crisis in schools

Sluggish growth in math scores for U.S. students began long before the pandemic, but the problem has snowballed into an education crisis. This back-to-school-season, the Education Reporting Collaborative, a group of eight diverse newsrooms, will be documenting the enormous challenge facing our schools and highlighting examples of progress. The three-year-old Reporting Collaborative includes The Seattle Times,, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina. Read the Collaborative’s work at