Nation’s Report Card Shows Little Progress in Reading and Math—Except On This Measure
April 11, 2018 12:53 pm
Although the nation’s eighth graders show a slight improvement in reading, their math scores remain basically unchanged since 2015, according to results released April 10 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Fourth-grade scores in reading and math also remain flat since 2015. Education observers seized on the flat scores and achievement gaps that failed to narrow. There is, however, one important component of NAEP that has improved over the years: a decrease in the percentage of students who score at NAEP’s lowest achievement level, “below basic.”
“The report card is in, and the results are clear: We can and we must do better for America’s students,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “Our nation’s reading and math scores continue to stagnate. More alarmingly, the gap between the highest and lowest performing students is widening, despite billions in federal funding designated specifically to help close it.”
As an example of DeVos’s point, eighth graders at the 75th and 90th percentiles increased their average math scores by 2 points and 4 points, respectively, while average scores decreased for students at the 25th and 10th percentiles, as shown in the graph below. (Click on the image for a larger version).
Achievement Gaps Fail to Narrow
In other troubling news, achievement gaps between different student groups failed to narrow. As shown in the graph below, the average reading score for white eighth graders in 2017 is 25 points higher than that for black students and is not significantly different from the 30-point score gap in 1992. The white-Hispanic gap in eighth-grade reading scores was 19 points in 2017, which is not significantly different from 2015 but smaller than the 26-point score difference in 1992. (Click on the image for a larger version).
“The persistent disparities in achievement for historically underserved students reflected on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are profoundly concerning and reinforce the urgent work needed to address education equity,” said John B. King Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Education Trust. “Achievement gaps are without question a result of opportunity gaps—deeply troubling inequities that mean in many places throughout the country students who need the most from our education system continue to get less. … While there will certainly be much debate to follow on what these data mean, we must do better for students who’ve been historically underserved. If we fail to educate students of color and students from low-income families, we have no future as a nation.”
One Measure of Improvement–Decrease in Percentage of Students Performing “Below Basic”
One component of NAEP that has improved through the years, although unacceptably slow, is the decrease in the percentage of students who score at NAEP’s lowest achievement level, “below basic.” This is an especially critical area in which improvement is needed.
In one of its earliest reports, Every Child a Graduate, the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) notes that secondary students in the lowest 25 percent of achievement are 3.5 times more likely to drop out than students in the next highest quarter of academic achievement, and 20 times more likely to drop out than top-performing students. “Overall, the students in the lowest quartile account for about two-thirds of all dropouts. At the same time, these lowest performing students represent only 4 percent of all college graduates,” the report notes.
Since the first administration of NAEP in 1992, the percentage of black eighth graders scoring below basic in math declined from 78 percent in 1990 to 52 percent in 2015, but it went back up to 53 percent in 2017. For Hispanic students, the percentage fell from 66 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2015, but it went back up to 43 percent in 2017.
In reading, the percentage of black eighth graders scoring below basic continues to decline, going from 51 percent in 1992 to 42 percent in 2015 and 40 percent in 2017. For Hispanic students, the percentage scoring below basic fell from 51 percent in 1992 to 34 percent in 2015 and 33 percent in 2017.
According to NAEP, eighth-grade students performing at the “basic” level in reading should be able to “locate information; identify statements of main idea, theme, or author’s purpose; and make simple inferences from texts.” Individuals performing “below basic” are unable to perform these tasks, likely putting them at serious risk of failure when they encounter more difficult texts in high school.
According to All4Ed’s Every Child a Graduate, “poor readers struggle to learn in text-heavy courses such as mathematics, science, and history. Second, poor readers are frequently blocked access to academically challenging courses, channeled instead into classes where they receive poor-quality instruction and a significantly narrowed curriculum.”
Even with the gains on NAEP since the early 1990s, large percentages of black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students continue to perform below the basic level, compared to only about 15 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander and white students, as shown in the graph below. At the other end of the achievement-level spectrum, 55 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander eighth graders scored at proficient or above, compared to 45 percent of white students, 23 percent of Hispanic students, 22 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students, and 18 percent of black students. (Click on the image for a larger version).
In eighth-grade math, 62 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students scored at the proficient level, compared to 44 percent of white students, 20 percent of Hispanic students, 18 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students, and 13 percent of black students.
Among individual states, nine (California (+4 points), Florida (+3 points), Georgia (+4 points), Hawaii (+4 points), Indiana (+4 points), Massachusetts (+3 points), Mississippi (+4 points), New Jersey (+4 points), and Washington (+4 points)) posted average reading scores among eighth-grade students that were significantly higher compared to 2015. In eighth-grade math, Florida (+4 points) is the only state to produce a score that was significantly higher than in 2015.
Complete coverage of the NAEP results in reading and math is available at https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_2017_highlights/.
Jason Amos is vice president of communications at the Alliance for Excellent Education.