Nation’s Report Card shows lowest-performing students lose ground

Georgia and nation see decline in average reading performance in fourth and eighth grade

Released today, the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math scores in fourth and eighth grade show gains by students at higher-academic levels but no progress or declines among lower-performing ones.

Begun 50 years ago, NAEP is known as the Nation’s Report Card. It is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas. Every two years, NAEP samples students in 4th and 8th grade and tests them in reading and mathematics. 

“The fact that students who need to make the most academic progress are instead making no progress or are falling further behind is extremely troubling,” said Tonya Matthews, vice chair of the National Assessment Governing Board and an associate provost at Wayne State University in Detroit. “We need to see all students make progress if we are going to achieve our shared goals of an equitable society where everyone can contribute to our knowledge-based economy.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used the scores to to bolster her platform that increased school choice is the solution. In a statement, she said: 

Two out of three of our nation’s children aren’t proficient readers. In fact, fourth grade reading declined in 17 states and eighth grade reading declined in 31. The gap between the highest and lowest performing students is widening, despite $1 trillion in federal spending over 40 years designated specifically to help close it.

This must be America’s wake-up call. We cannot abide these poor results any longer. We can neither excuse them away nor simply throw more money at the problem. This administration has a transformational plan to help America’s forgotten students escape failing schools. By expanding education freedom, students can break out of the one-size-fits all system and learn in the ways that will unlock their full potential. They deserve it. Parents demand it. And, it’s the only way to bring about the change our country desperately needs.

Education Trust also issued a statement from Ary Amerikaner, vice president for P-12 policy, practice, and research.

Today’s NAEP results provide more evidence of how deeply we shortchange students from low-income families and black and Latino students. While the nation has witnessed significant progress for all groups of students over the last 30 years and many of our largest urban school districts are moving steadily to raise student achievement, we have miles to go to close opportunity gaps and the achievement gaps they create.

Until we adopt policies and make investments that center the needs of historically underserved students, including students from low-income families, black students, and Latino students, it’s unrealistic to expect these gaps to close. While the NAEP results are disappointing, we’ve seen across states and districts that progress is possible. Today we call on national, state, and local leaders to take these data seriously, and to take bold action to address persistent inequities in access to strong and diverse educatorsadvanced courseworkhigh-quality early childhood educationschool funding, and other essential supports provided inside and outside the classroom.

Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director & CEO of the National School Boards Association said:

Investments for teacher training and development, student support services, access to high-speed broadband and adaptive technology, and innovative programs that boost student learning and achievement are urgently needed, especially as our public schools are educating more students than ever before in history – and doing so despite enormous financial challenges.

Indeed, NAEP’s findings must be viewed as a call to action for Congress and the Administration to place a greater priority on our public schools and the interests of our nation’s more than 50 million public schoolchildren.

Here is a summary of the national outcomes from the U.S. Department of Education, along with Georgia and Atlanta information that I added: 

Average reading scores for the nation in 2019 were lower for students in both fourth and eighth grade than in 2017, while average mathematics scores were higher by 1 point for fourth graders and lower by 1 point for eighth graders. Results on The Nation’s Report Card: 2019 Mathematics and Reading for states and urban districts were varied, with a greater proportion of districts than states showing increases in mathematics performance.

Georgia had no significant change in its math scores from 2017.  However, Georgia was among the many states experiencing reading setbacks. 

While fourth graders nationally posted a 1 point drop in reading, Georgia fourth graders saw a 2 point decrease.

In eighth grade reading, Georgia showed a 4 point drop, higher than the national average decline of 3 points. 

Georgia’s average score was the same as the national average score in eighth-grade reading, within a point of the national average in fourth-grade reading, and within two points of the national average in fourth- and eighth-grade math.

 “There remains work to do to ensure all Georgia students have access to a well-rounded education that expands the opportunities available to them,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said in a statement this morning. “With that said, it is important to note that Georgia’s students are nearing or reaching the national average in all subject areas on the ‘Nation’s Report Card.’ While our state’s public schools have so often been labeled ‘last in the nation,’ that is clearly not the case.”

What is happening with reading? I have seen theories that this is the aftermath of the Great Recession, which was under way when today's fourth graders were born. Also, the reading decline has been blamed on the surge of screens in the lives of American kids and adults. 

When I put the question this morning to folks on AJC Get Schooled Facebook, one person wrote something that many others agreed was on target. She wrote: 

I think schools are making reading more and more tedious. All kinds of things kill the joy of reading, from reading logs and AR tests, to the loss of literature to informational text. Kids are forced to select books that fit within their Lexile range. Another big factor is making kids read earlier than they are developmentally ready for. I wish we would take this lesson from schools in Finland and other countries who begin formal education a bit later. The evidence is in that forcing reading in kindergarten is counterproductive.

The Nation’s Report Card provides results for the nation, states/jurisdictions, and 27 urban school districts that volunteer to participate in the Trial Urban District Assessment. Atlanta is among those districts. 

Compared to 2017, Atlanta saw a 1 point increase in fourth grade math and a 1 point drop in reading. In eighth grade, APS students registered a 2 point increase in math and a 1 point increase in reading.

“We’re encouraged to see the transformation strategies and related investments contributing to significant gains, including APS narrowing the gap with our large urban peers in reading,” said APS Superintendent Dr. Meria J. Carstarphen in a statement. “However, there is still work to be done. We must ensure that our students are more competitive with students from across Georgia and the nation in order to prepare them for college and career and to provide them the opportunity for choice-filled lives.” 

In addition to reporting scale scores and percentages of students at or above three NAEP achievement levels, NAEP reports scores for students at five selected percentiles to show progress made by lower- (10th and 25th percentiles), middle- (50th percentile), and higher-performing students (75th and 90th percentiles).

Compared to 2009, the 2019 national results in mathematics were lower for grade 4 and grade 8 students in the lowest-performing percentile, while scores increased for students in grade 4 at the 75th and 90th percentiles and in grade 8 at the 90th percentile. National results show lower scores in reading compared to 2009 for students at the 10th and 25th percentiles in grades 4 and 8, while scores for higher performers increased.

In mathematics and reading for both grades, a little more than one-third of students nationally scored at or above the NAEP Proficient level in 2019. Compared to 2017, the average mathematics score was higher at grade 4, where 41 percent of fourth graders scored at or above the NAEP Proficient level. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.

At grade 4 for the nation, average mathematics scores by race/ethnicity show that Hispanic students had a higher average mathematics score in 2019 compared to 2017. Reading scores were lower for White and Black students at grade 4 and for all racial/ethnic groups, except Asian/Pacific Islanders at grade 8 compared to 2017. Mathematics scores increased in nine states/jurisdictions at grade 4, and in three at grade 8. 

Average grade 4 mathematics scores increased in five TUDA districts, while average grade 8 math scores increased in four districts. The fourth-grade 2019 overall average reading scores in Clark County (NV), Detroit, and the District of Columbia Public Schools were not significantly different from 2017, but scores for Hispanic fourth graders in these districts were higher. Hispanic fourth graders also scored higher in mathematics in Clark County (NV) and Detroit, which each saw overall score increases in 2019 compared to 2017; Hispanic fourth graders also scored higher in mathematics in Los Angeles, which did not have a significant change in its overall score compared to 2017. At grade 8, the average mathematics scores in Guilford County (NC) were higher for Hispanic students and students overall in 2019 than in 2017. 

The assessment includes surveys—taken by students, teachers, and school administrators— that shed light on the contexts for student learning at the various levels of NAEP performance, illuminating differences in educational resources and opportunities. 

In grade 8, students at or above the 75th percentile were more likely than students below the 25th percentile (54 percent versus 36 percent) to report that their teachers asked them to “always” or “almost always” report the main idea of a reading passage. 

In mathematics, compared to lower-performing students, a larger percentage of higher-performing students at grade 4 had teachers who reported placing “heavy emphasis” on measurement (32 percent versus 28 percent), geometry (36 percent versus 31 percent), and algebra and functions (60 percent versus 57 percent). 

And at grade 8, a larger percentage of higher-performing students compared to lower performing students reported taking Algebra I (56 percent versus 14 percent), Geometry (13 percent versus 2 percent), or Algebra II (3 percent versus 1 percent). 

“The insight into students’ experiences that NAEP provides is invaluable in shining a light on access to resources and opportunities that can focus efforts to improve outcomes for students,” said Rebecca Gagnon, chair of the Governing Board’s Reporting and Dissemination Committee

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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