Georgia students gain in reading scores, but still lag U.S.; Atlanta has race gap

Test scores
Georgia and the nation as a whole still have a long way to go before all students are scoring at a “proficient” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Georgia and the nation as a whole still have a long way to go before all students are scoring at a “proficient” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Georgia students are getting better at reading in eighth grade, where fast-rising scores are approaching the national average, according to the latest results from the nation’s report card for schools.

Both Georgia and the nation as a whole still have a long way to go before all students are scoring at a “proficient” level, though.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests a randomly-selected group of fourth- and eighth-grade students in math and reading every two years. The change in Georgia’s scores from 2015 to 2017 closely tracked the national average in most areas except eighth-grade reading, where the state’s score rose faster.

Georgia’s eighth-graders rose three points, bringing the state to 265, one point under the national average. Still, the scores for both Georgia and the nation leave room for improvement: It takes a reading score over 280 just to reach what’s deemed “proficient” in eighth-grade reading. An “advanced” score is at least 323.

And the motor driving the two-point national rise in eighth-grade reading scores suggests trouble: Higher-performing students showed most of the gains with lower-performing students scoring about the same as before, said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the tests under a mandate from Congress. The performance gap in math was more stark, with high-performing eighth-graders showing gains while their lower-performing peers did worse than two years ago. It was a similar story in fourth grade, where lower-performing students lost ground in both subjects while their higher-performing peers held steady.

The results are used to compare states and some cities. Atlanta is among 27 large urban school districts that participated.

Unlike Georgia as a whole, the city school system’s 2017 results didn’t show a meaningful change in average scores in any grade or subject area. But Atlanta Public Schools did produce one remarkable statistic: It had the widest racial achievement gap of any urban school district except Washington, D.C., with whites outpacing blacks and Hispanics, typically by about 50 points.

The district leadership knows it’s a problem.

“We believe all our students should be achieving at the same level as our white students, but it’s not happening,” said Michael LaMont, the school district’s executive director over data and information.

Atlanta’s achievement gap is an enduring one that spans at least a decade of testing in fourth grade. Historically, so few white students attended APS in eighth grade that there weren’t enough to produce a reliable average score on NAEP, but white enrollment crossed a threshold in 2009 and has doubled since then. Now that NAEP can measure the scores of white eighth-graders, it is clear that the gap is wide in both fourth and eighth grade.

It isn’t just because blacks are underperforming. They are, but not as badly as in some districts. The gap is made wider because Atlanta whites have consistently done relatively well. An analysis of the national NAEP scores by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows blacks in Atlanta routinely scoring at about the average for urban districts while whites have been scoring above whites elsewhere.

“Clearly, APS is doing something well” with white students, said Dana Rickman, director of policy and research for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonpartisan education think tank. “But it doesn’t translate across race and ethnicity, and that’s alarming.”

Whites remain a fraction of Atlanta enrollment — about one in six students — while three out four are black. So the city won’t show significant gains overall until it succeeds in translating that success beyond white students.