The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects over 2,000 species, but no concise, standardized metrics exist for assessing changes in species recovery status. Tracking these changes is crucial to understanding species status, adjusting conservation strategies, and assessing the performance of the ESA. We helped develop and test novel metrics that track changes in recovery status using six components. ESA 5-year status reviews provided all of the information used to apply the recovery metrics. When we analyzed the reviews, we observed several key challenges to species recovery. First, the reviews lack a standardized format and clear documentation. Second, despite having been listed for decades, many species still lack basic information about their biology and threats. Third, many species have continued to decline after listing. Fourth, many species currently have no path to recovery. Applying the recovery metrics allowed us to gain these and other insights about ESA implementation. We urge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt the metrics as part of future status reviews in order to inform public discourse on improving conservation policy and to systematically track the recovery progress of all ESA species.