Average reading scores for 4th and 8th graders in the U.S. have dropped since 2017, according to the latest results of the “nation’s report card.” Math scores increased by one point for 4th graders and decreased by one point for 8th-graders, with progress overall remaining flat for the past decade.
At 4th grade, the average reading score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ 500-point scale was 220, compared to 222 in 2017. Reading scores for 8th graders dropped four points, from 267 to 263. While reading scores for both grade levels are higher than when students started taking the test in 1992, there have been few significant changes in performance since 2009.
Reading scores also dropped for low, middle- and high-performing students at both grade levels. That's a departure from previous years, when higher-performing students continued to show gains while the scores of lower-performing students declined.
“The students who are struggling the most in reading are where they were almost 30 years ago,” said Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the assessment division at the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP and other national assessment programs in the U.S. She added declines were seen in both reading for information and reading as a literary experience.
Lesley Muldoon, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board — which sets NAEP policy — added the results were "frustrating" given the work of teachers and others to improve student achievement.
Math scores show a steeper upward trend since the beginning of the assessment in 1990 — from 213 to 241 at 4th grade and from 263 to 282 in 8th grade. In 2019, low- and middle-performing 4th-graders made small gains, while scores dropped among lower-performing 8th-graders.
In math, there were no changes in the percentage of students reaching NAEP's proficient level, which Carr describes as an "aspirational goal," while there were declines in the percentage of students reaching proficiency in reading.
Scores for many student subgroups drop
In reading, scores among 4th graders dropped for both white and black students, as well as for males and students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. There was a slight increase, however, for English learners, from 189 to 191. At 8th grade, reading scores decreased for all racial and ethnic groups, except Asian/Pacific Islander students. Scores also dropped for both males and females and for those eligible and not eligible for subsidized meals.
In math, there was a significant drop of six points for American Indian/Alaska Native students in 8th grade. And while trends show growth for other student subgroups over time, performance among this group has remained stagnant. There were no significant changes in scores for other racial and ethnic groups, compared to 2017.
In 4th grade math, Hispanic students made small gains compared to 2017 results, while there were no significant gains or losses for other racial and ethnic subgroups. Math scores at 4th grade also increased for males, English learners and for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
This year’s NAEP results also mirror the demographic changes occurring in schools across the country. At 8th grade, the percentage of Hispanic students taking both the math and reading exams has steadily increased, while the percentage of white students has declined since 1990. Similar shifts are seen in 4th grade.
But Carr said changes in the racial makeup of the 600,000 students who took the test don't explain the declines in performance, which she said were seen across most subgroups.
The results also show that nationally, there has been relatively no change in the score gap between white and black students and between white and Hispanic students in math at 4th or 8th grade. In 4th grade reading, the white-Hispanic gap is slightly smaller than it was in 2017 but similar to where it stood in 1992, while the white-black gap has narrowed over time but remained the same as last year.
No more ‘Thank God for Mississippi’
The disappointing national picture also continues at the state level, with reading scores dropping for 4th graders in 17 states and for 8th graders in 31 states. "That is a very meaningful decline," Carr said.
Only Mississippi saw a significant increase at 4th grade, and only the District of Columbia saw gains in 8th grade.
In math, average scores in 4th grade increased over 2017 in nine states, D.C. and the Department of Defense Education Activity. Scores dropped in three states — Vermont, West Virginia and Vermont — and remained relatively the same in 40 states. At 8th grade, D.C. schools and two southern states — Louisiana and Mississippi — saw gains in reading scores, while performance dropped in six states.
In Mississippi, which saw gains in three areas and now reaches the national average, the progress is a continuation of gradual increases in reading and math over the past decade. The improvement also confirms gains seen in statewide assessments, such as an increase in the proportion of kindergartners meeting an end-of-year literacy goal, from 54% in 2015 to 65.6% this year.
State Superintendent Carey Wright, who joins Carr in Washington Wednesday for a panel discussion on the results, attributes the growth to a “laser-like focus on literacy," adding the state has increased professional development for elementary teachers because many "were not arriving ready day one" with the skills to teach reading.
"It's all around the science of reading," she said. "That is really paying off for us."
The state also sends literacy coaches to work with early-childhood education teachers in underserved areas, Wright said.
In math, the state's focus has been on making sure teachers can choose from high-quality instructional materials when planning lessons.
"We can't dictate materials," Wright said, but the state can guide teachers toward them. With support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the state also recruits teachers to design curriculum and assessments.
Gaps between poor and non-poor students in the state are also closing, Wright said, attributing the progress to confronting "a culture of low expectations." She joked that other states with low performance can no longer say "Thank God for Mississippi."
Among the 27 districts participating in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment, five school districts saw gains in 4th-grade math and four saw gains at 8th grade. Hispanic students, who make up a significant proportion of the enrollment in urban districts, also saw gains at 4th grade.
In reading, the pattern at the state level was also reflected in district results. Three districts saw declines in average scores at 4th grade, and scores dropped in 11 districts at 8th grade. Only D.C. students increased their performance at 8th grade, compared to 2017. The District of Columbia Public Schools has also been the fastest-improving TUDA district over the history of the program, Carr said.
Results worse than some predictions
Carr said that while NCES would be eager to examine the data to better understand the results, the agency doesn't have "the bandwidth." She urged researchers to look for reasons behind the patterns in performance.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called the results "devastating" and used the release as a chance to promote her school choice plan.
"By expanding education freedom, students can break out of the one-size-fits all system and learn in the ways that will unlock their full potential," she said in a statement. "They deserve it. Parents demand it. And, it’s the only way to bring about the change our country desperately needs."
Some experts predicted the scores would at least be stagnant. In an Education Next article, Sandy Kress, a former education advisor in the second Bush administration, said states have not made any major changes under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
"I see no broad application of quality, research-based practices proven to lift achievement," he wrote. "I see no alteration in spending patterns to apply more dollars to activities or practices proven to lift achievement. I see no meaningful, substantial, or serious policies or practices that lead to a narrowing of achievement gaps."
Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said the recession is largely to blame, and Matthew Ladner, who runs the choice-focused "RedefinED" blog, expected the teacher strikes over the past year would have a negative effect.
“These strikes varied in length and breadth. Of course, we’ll never know what the 2019 NAEP scores would have been if these strikes had not occurred,” he wrote in the same article, but added “kids learn more when they are in school than when they aren’t, and that many schools adhere to ‘make up time’ rules in a half-hearted fashion, if at all.”