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U.S. education achievement slides backwards

Substantial decrease in reading scores among the nation's eighth graders

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Reading scores for fourth graders fell in 17 states and dipped in 31 states among eighth graders.

The average performance of the nation’s fourth and eighth graders mostly declined in math and reading from 2017 to 2019, following a decade of stagnation in educational progress, according to the results of a test released on Oct. 30, 2019. The one exception was fourth-grade math, with the average score rising by one point between 2017 and 2019.

This was not the first drop in national test scores since the biennial test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, was first administered in the early 1990s. Scores also dropped between 2013 and 2015. But federal statisticians described the current 2019 drop as “substantial,” particularly in eighth-grade reading achievement with 31 states posting lower scores.

“Over the past decade, there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest performing students are doing worse,” said Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in a prepared statement. “In fact, over the long term in reading, the lowest performing students—those readers who struggle the most—have made no progress from the first NAEP administration almost 30 years ago.”

The NAEP is the only national exam and it allows scholars and policymakers to compare students in one region of the country with another. Every state has its own annual assessments but they vary in difficulty and how they are scored. Fewer than 600,000 fourth and eighth grade students take the NAEP but they are carefully selected, as in an opinion poll, to represent the actual geographic, income and racial differences in the nation. Twenty-seven large school districts, representing roughly 50 percent of the nation’s urban students, volunteer for extra testing so that they can have NAEP scores for their cities in addition to their states.

Related: National test scores reveal a decade of educational stagnation

Leslie Muldoon, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which jointly oversees the the test along with NCES, called the bleak score report  “frustrating and difficult to understand” because of all the efforts to improve education. Those include holding schools and teachers accountable for student performance, the introduction of more rigorous Common Core standards, the increased use of education technology and the expansion of charter schools.

Test administrators do not provide explanations for student performance but scholars and policymakers have been arguing over the root causes of stagnation for years. Many blame the 2008 recession and the resulting drop in public funding for schools and increase in poverty among students.

Some analysts have wondered if demographic shifts might explain the drop in the national average scores, with white students making up a smaller portion of the public school population as the number of Hispanic students has grown. (White students historically score higher than black and Hispanic students, on average, so a falling number of white students could drag down the national average even if performance for each racial or ethnic group is unchanged or rising.) But NCES’s Carr said that demographic shifts were not responsible for the 2019 declines because test score drops were seen among white students. In fact, scores improved for English language learners, a category that includes many Hispanic students.

Story continues below table of test results for each state

Florida falls back

Among the states to post significantly lower scores were many traditionally top performing states such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey and Minnesota. Test scores also slid considerably in Kansas and West Virginia. Florida, which had been a standout in the previous 2017 score report, fell back down.

Related: U.S. now ranks near the bottom among 35 industrialized nations in math

Mississippi and Washington, D.C., were two bright spots in the report. Students in Mississippi have historically tested at the bottom of the nation but in 2019 they moved up to average performance in both fourth-grade math and reading. Washington, D.C., students posted strong gains in both reading and math. Students in the nation’s capital are still scoring well below the national average but NCES pointed out that D.C. students posted the strongest and fastest gains in math among all 50 states and 27 large urban school districts. San Diego had the strongest gains in reading.

Achievement gaps widening

The decline among low-performing students means that achievement gaps are widening. In fourth-grade reading, for example, the gap between the top 10 percent and the bottom 10 percent of students widened by nine points over the past decade. In fourth-grade math, the gap widened by eight points. For eighth graders, the gap between the top 10 percent and the bottom 10 percent widened by 10 points in each subject over the past decade.

This story about NAEP testing was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth… See Archive

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