A national achievement test shows American fourth and eighth graders falling behind in reading and barely holding steady in math, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which administers the test, says public schools are making progress with some key student groups even though overall performance is lackluster.
NAEP exams, the results of which are known as the Nation’s Report Card, are given to select fourth, eighth, and 12th-grade students annually or biennially. Begun in 1969, the exams are the longest-running standardized tests of their kind, providing copious data for researchers to analyze. The recent results stem from tests administered earlier this year to nearly 100,000 fourth and eighth grade students across the country.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pointed out that the test scores showed two out of three U.S. students are not proficient readers. Fourth grade reading declined in 17 states and eighth grade reading declined in 31.
“Our children continue to fall further and further behind their international peers,” she said. “If we embrace education freedom, American students can achieve. American students can compete.”
NAEP said the overall test scores do not reflect the socioeconomic and educational factors affecting students’ performance. Students with disabilities and those still learning English comprise about 15 percent of those tested this year. Unsurprisingly, they tend to score below the national average. But the trend over the last several decades for those two groups has shown steady upward growth.
Grady Wilburn, a statistician for NAEP, said the test defines proficiency differently than many people understand it, and that leads to misconceptions about the results.
“One thing that often gets confused is that ‘proficient’ on NAEP means mastery over challenging subject matter,” Wilburn said. “It is often a higher bar than state-level testing’s ‘proficient,’ which means they are performing at grade level.” A student rated “proficient” on the NAEP exam is actually performing above grade level compared with most state assessments.
This year’s test results also showed that students in Washington, D.C., are improving, and the gap between urban school districts and the national average has narrowed. School officials in the nation’s capital celebrated their gains in both math and reading. District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee credited the 2008 implementation of universal pre-K as a reason for the success. The eighth graders who took this year’s NAEP tests were part of the first wave of students to benefit from the free citywide program.
“Many of our students are getting a strong start in their learning,” Ferebee said. The chancellor also pointed to the district’s comparatively high teacher salaries that “allow us to be competitive at a time when there’s a nationwide shortage of good teachers.”
Mississippi, a state that typically lurks near the bottom of education quality lists, also showed improvement. The state posted a 4 point average gain since the 2017 NAEP in fourth grade reading, and a 6 point gain in fourth grade math. Those gains were the highest in the nation in both testing categories.
“Our achievement is at an all-time high in Mississippi,” state Superintendent Carey Wright said. For the first time in the state’s history, fourth-graders bested the national average in math and matched it in reading. Wright pointed to the state’s heavy emphasis on early literacy as a key factor in its success.
“When you improve kids’ reading ability, it’s not surprising that kids’ math ability falls in line,” Wright said.