Education Policy & Assessment

Nation's Report Card Shows Steady Scores in Math, Dip in Reading

The vast wealth of data that is the "Nation's Report Card" showed that average math scores stayed steady across states for fourth and eighth graders in this year's round of testing by the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) compared to scores in 2017. Overall, math testing ticked up by one point for students in grade 4 and sank by one point for those in grade 8. Average reading scores in grade 4 dipped for students in about a third of states and dropped for those in grade 8 in about half of states over that same period.

The math assessment was tackled by 296,900 students in grades 4 and 8 for this year's assessments. Reading was undertaken by almost 294,000 students.

NAEP results for both subjects are categorized into four groupings: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. The line between students achieving basic compared to proficient-level scores demarcates those who aren't and are competent "over challenging subject matter." (NAEP warns that these should be "interpreted and used with caution.")

A comparison of achievement level trends in math since 1990--almost three decades worth of results--found that the share of students performing at or above NAEP proficient didn't vary much from 2017. But the 2019 results were higher compared to 2009 at grade 4 and not really different at grade 8. However, 2019 results compared to 1990 results for students ranked below basic were considerably improved in grade 8, shrinking from 48 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 2019. Likewise, the number of students deemed proficient and advanced also grew, from 13 percent and two percent for 1990, respectively, to 24 percent and 10 percent for 2019. Significantly wide improvements also occurred for students in grade 4 over that 29-year period.

Across sub-groups, NAEP reported "no significant score changes" for most racial/ethnic groups for either grade versus scores in 2017. However, compared to a decade ago, average scores were higher for Black, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander fourth-graders; and higher specifically for Asian/Pacific Islander eighth-graders.

In reading, the percentage of fourth-grade students performing at or above NAEP proficient in 2019 was higher in comparison to a decade ago (35 percent versus 28 percent). But for eighth-grade students, the story was different. The percentage performing at or above proficient in 2019 didn't vary from 2009 (33 percent for both years).

Across sub-groups White and Black fourth-graders scored lower in reading in 2019 compared to 2017; however, those 2019 scores weren't different from the scores in 2009. For Hispanic students, scores dropped by three points between 2009 and 2019.

"The dominant theme that emerges," wrote NAEP researchers, "is the appearance of a growing divergence in achievement between the highest and lowest achieving students." That's true across the country, across states and for student groups by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. And it's particularly dramatic at the highest levels of achievement and the lowest.

For example, the researchers noted, across the board, the score at the 10th percentile dropped between 2009 and 2019 in both math and reading at both grade levels. At the same time, the score at the 90th percentile rose in both subjects and grades. The 90th percentile rose by five points in mathematics in each grade. In reading, the score at the 90th percentile rose three points at grade 4 and four points at grade 8.

The interactive NAEP Report Card highlights for math and reading are available on the Nation's Report Card website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.