U.S. 4th and 8th grade students are performing worse in math, and somewhat worse in reading, than they were two years ago, according to new data from a national test.
The results were a surprise to some since scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress had been showing an upward trend over the last two decades.
“This isn’t a pattern that we saw coming,” Peggy G. Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP, said in a media call. “It was an unexpected downturn.”
Even so, Carr emphasized that scores are still much higher than they were in the 1990s, and that the downturn doesn’t necessarily indicate a long-term trend. “We’re trying not to read too much into a decline,” she said. “We understand it’s a pattern that’s consistent across many of the states and distributions, but we like to see multiple years before we address it with that [high] level of concern.”
A nationally representative group of about 600,000 students took the NAEP test in 2015. The results, known as “the nation’s report card,” are released about every two years, and serve as a barometer for how U.S. students are performing academically.
Released today, the results showed that between 2013 and 2015, the average score for 4th grade math declined by one point, which constitutes a statistically significant decrease, to 240 on a 500-point scale. In 8th grade math, the average went down two points, to 282. (Note that the score differences in the chart above are based on unrounded averages.)
The 4th grade reading scores remained unchanged statistically from 2013. The 8th grade reading scores went down two points, to 265.
“It’s a one-time test. ... There was a lot going on in this country around testing and transition” when the NAEP was given between January and March of this year, said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “We need to make sure we don’t overreact to one data point. We were sure not to do that two years ago when we saw the data uptick.”
NAEP also reports scores based on achievement levels: basic, proficient, and advanced. Proficient indicates that students are successful with challenging content at that grade level.
Just 40 percent of 4th graders were at or above the proficient level in math this year. That’s down from 42 percent in 2013. Thirty-three percent of 8th graders were at or above the proficient level in math.
In reading, 36 percent of 4th graders and 34 percent of 8th graders were at or above the proficient level.
The percentage of students scoring in the lowest level, “below basic,” increased for 4th and 8th grade math as well as for 8th grade reading.
William J. Bushaw, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, noted that “curricular uncertainty"—likely a nod to the curriculum changes many districts are making to meet the Common Core State Standards—may be a factor in the drop in scores.
“The majority of our schools are undergoing significant changes in how and what we teach our students,” he said. “It’s not unusual when you see lots of different things happening in classrooms to see a decline before you see improvement.”
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a media call about the results yesterday that this sort of “implementation dip” is fairly common. He pointed to Massachusetts, which saw a drop in test scores after raising standards two decades ago, before becoming a consistently high-achieving state. “This is the ultimate long-term play,” he said.
Advocates on all sides will surely all have their own interpretations about what the NAEP data indicate. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that the focus on “test scores and their consequences” has hindered student learning. Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote that the economy is to blame.
However, it’s worth noting that the data do not lend themselves to causal interpretation. (Many now call the common misuse of NAEP data “misNAEPery.”) “The NAEP data does a wonderful job indicating what is happening,” said Carr. “There’s just nothing in the data that can give us more than hypotheses.”
Achievement Gaps Remain
Racial and ethnic achievement gaps, for the most part, have persisted, according to the NAEP data.
In 4th and 8th grade reading, as well as 8th grade math, there were no significant changes in such achievement gaps.
However, one score gap did shrink: the gap between black and white students in 4th grade math. But it did so because white students’ scores declined in 4th grade math, and black students’ scored stayed steady.
White students’ scores declined in both 8th grade subjects as well. Black and Hispanic students’ scores were down in both math and reading for 8th grade.
State Results Mixed But Down Overall
The 2015 results were also broken down for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense schools, and 21 urban districts.
The outcomes were mixed across the states, though overall they were disappointing.
The District of Columbia and Mississippi were the only two places to show increases in both math and reading for 4th grade.
The District of Columbia saw some of the biggest improvements between 2011 and 2013 as well. However, it continues to perform below the national average in both math and reading. In fact, in both 8th grade math and reading, D.C. scored lower than all 50 states.
Sixteen states saw declines in 4th grade math scores. Other than Mississippi and D.C., only the Department of Defense schools had increases in average scores. In all other states and jurisdictions, the average scores were not statistically different from 2013.
Not a single state had an increase in 8th grade math scores. Twenty-two states had declines in 8th grade math.
West Virginia was the only state with an increase in 8th grade reading between 2013 and 2015, while eight states declined. All other states’ 8th grade reading scores remained statistically unchanged.
Of the 21 districts assessed, only three saw multiple instances of score increases: D.C., Miami-Dade, and Chicago.
A study that came out earlier this week found that the NAEP test items have “reasonable” overlap with the Common Core State Standards, which 43 states and D.C. are now implementing.
Fran Stancavage, who worked on the study, which was commissioned by the independent NAEP Validity Studies Panel, said in an interview that “there’s learning going on that isn’t being picked up by NAEP at this point.” Ideally, the two would be more in line than they are currently, said Stancavage, a managing researcher for the American Institutes for Research.
NAEP has long been seen as an independent indicator of achievement, and it was not designed to be aligned to a particular set of standards.
Even so, Bushaw said the governing board periodically makes adjustments to the test. “I’m confident the board will look at this year’s results [and] will explore very carefully what’s being taught in America’s schools.”
Minnich said the test should be aligned to college- and career-ready expectations for students, which is now a consistent bar across the states. But he also emphasized that the results should not be overblown. “In two years, if we see the same thing, we need to make sure we’re making some adjustments,” he said. “But at this point, we don’t have a trend. We have one data point.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.