Where Are We Going Wrong? New NAEP Scores Show Decline in Reading Proficiency

Where Are We Going Wrong? New NAEP Scores Show Decline in Reading Proficiency

The National Assessment of Education Progress—also known as the Nation’s Report Card—has measured student performance across the United States for decades. Spearheaded by the National Center for Education Statistics, the assessment tests a representative sample of students from every U.S. state and jurisdiction in a variety of subjects, and NAEP data has been instrumental in developing education policy and practice since it was first reported in 1969.

It’s no wonder, then, that scores from the most recent iteration of the test are causing so much concern in the education community. As NCES Associate Commissioner Peggy Carr noted, “Over the past decade, there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest-performing students are doing worse.” Simply put, these figures suggest we must all take a hard look at how our students are faring and how we can help them succeed.

A decrease across the board

As a recent Education Week blog noted, reading scores for fourth and eighth grades dropped from 2017 to 2019, with little or no improvement in math over the same time period. More specifically, eighth-grade reading performance fell by four scale score points and fourth-grade reading performance fell by two scale score points; the top-performing 10% of fourth-graders composed the only group to maintain the same score in reading as in 2017, the lowest-performing 10% of fourth-graders showed the most significant decline, and scores declined for all eighth-grade groups from 2017 to 2019.

This overall drop in literacy scores is a nationwide concern, with Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stating, “Every American family needs to open the Nation's Report Card this year and think about what it means for their child and for our country's future.” 

A state-by-state breakdown

A closer look at the 2019 Nation’s Report Card for fourth grade revealed that for 17 states, the average fourth-grade reading score was lower in 2019 compared to 2017. A total of 34 states and jurisdictions saw no change, while only one state—Mississippi—earned a significantly higher average score than it did two years earlier.

The decline from 2017 to 2019 was even more pronounced for eighth-graders. According to the Nation’s Report Card results for eighth grade, reading scores among eighth-graders declined from 2017 in 31 states, remained about the same in 20 states and jurisdictions, and rose significantly in just one jurisdiction—the District of Columbia. 

Who is most at risk?

Further analysis of the 2019 NAEP data showed the most pronounced decline in reading scores among Black, white, Hispanic, and Native American students with the lowest reading proficiency in a trend that is far from unprecedented. “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,” observed Peggy Carr of the NCES.

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However, despite encouraging stakeholders to dig deeper into the data, Carr urged educators eager to determine risk factors and identify non-proficient readers' needs to remember that the NAEP was designed to determine the “what” rather than the “why” of student performance. 

Defining proficiency

Indeed, considering historical context and taking a bigger-picture view of the American education system is key to properly interpreting NAEP data, beginning with the definition of “proficient.” The NCES website clearly states that the NAEP proficient achievement level is not the same as the grade-level proficiency defined by state or local standardized testing, with students who perform at or above the proficient level on the NAEP displaying “solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter.” In short, the NAEP’s definition of proficient is more rigorous than the one used by most states and districts, which can lead to misconceptions of NAEP data.

Some states have adopted the NAEP’s definition of proficiency when developing their own Common Core Standards, although award-winning principal and activist Carol Burris has opined that raising the standards of grade-level proficiency can push educators to speed through instruction of critical skills and put unreasonable pressure on already-struggling students. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution also spoke out against raising state proficiency standards to match those defined by the NAEP, writing on his blog that “If middle and elementary school students are forced to repeat grades because they fall short of a standard anchored to NAEP proficient, vast numbers will repeat grades.”

Where to go from here

Looking beyond the difference between performing at grade level per state common core standards and performing proficiently per the NAEP, educators wondering how to use NAEP data to raise students' reading skills could begin by evaluating the few states and districts that did show progress over the past two years. For instance, Mississippi—the only state with statistically significant improvement in fourth-grade reading scores—showed progress that was characterized by Carr as “systematic and across the board,” with the achievement gap narrowing among white, Black, and Hispanic students in fourth- and eighth-grade reading. 

This success is believed to be at least partly due to Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act that, since 2013, has required third-grade students to pass a reading test before being promoted to fourth grade. Also in 2013, Mississippi passed legislation to increase funding for state education and promote early reading, teacher training and support, and clear school ratings. Indeed, the Ed Note blog from Education Commission of the States associated Mississippi's recent history of consistent state education reforms with the state's rising NAEP scores. 

Like Mississippi, the District of Columbia—the only state/jurisdiction to see significantly improved eighth-grade reading scores in 2019—also enacted comprehensive education reforms across its public schools over the past decade, with Ed Note specifically mentioning the state's improved curriculum, enhanced teaching materials, and reformed educator hiring and retention processes. Indeed, public school teachers in the District of Columbia now face a more rigorous hiring process and receive more training and higher pay. 

Along with the longitudinal value of the NAEP, the examples set by Mississippi and the District of Columbia support what literacy educators already know: Creating lasting change in student literacy involves many factors, including high-quality instruction, comprehensive student support, and a long-term commitment to improving education. While the 2019 NAEP reading score decline is concerning, it's important to remember that the assessment itself is not designed to determine causal factors or indicate next steps for literacy education. Rather, the NAEP results should be used as a barometer check and supplemented by additional data, including information about successful states' and districts' policies. Taking this approach can help educators apply effective techniques and meaningful, long-term reforms with the aim of improving education for all students in America.

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