School & District Management

Students Like Math and Science More, and Reading Less, Than They Used To

By Catherine Gewertz — June 13, 2018 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Students like math and science more than they did in 2009, but they like reading less, especially in elementary school.

That’s the upshot of an analysis released Wednesday by the National Center for Education Statistics. It compiles students’ responses to questionnaires administered with the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP, in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. Some of the questions ask students whether math, science or reading are “always or almost” one of their favorite subjects.

The responses, and the changes over time, vary by grade level. But the most disheartening results are in 4th grade reading. Take a look at this chart. It shows a 6-percentage-point decline between 2009 and 2015 in the proportion of 4th grade students who reported reading for fun in their spare time, from 44 percent to 38 percent.

(You’ll see that the data on reading go back to 2002, but since they date back only to 2009 for science and math, we’re focusing on 2009 to facilitate comparisons.)

The bleak picture of reading enthusiasm gets only modestly better in 8th grade. Eighth graders like reading less than younger students: Only 13 percent of them called it a favorite activity, and that disinterest has been stubbornly consistent since 2009. Among 12th graders, interest actually declined a point, to 14 percent.

How good kids are at reading doesn’t seem to be linked to their interest level. Fourth grade students who scored in the 75th percentile on NAEP showed an even bigger drop in their interest in reading (7 percentage points between 2009 and 2015) than those who scored in the 25th percentile (4 points).

Rising Interest in Math and Science at All Grade Levels

Math offers a rosier picture, with increases in interest at all three grade levels between 2009 and 2015. Elementary students sure like it better than older students: 37 percent of the 4th graders reported that math is one of their favorite subjects in 2015, up from 39 percent in 2009. Affection for math rose only 1 percentage point in higher grades, with 18 percent of 8th graders and 15 percent of 12th graders saying math is a favorite subject.

In math, changes in interest are linked to how well students perform in the subject. At all three grade levels between 2009 and 2015, there was no change in interest, or a decline in interest, among lower-performing math students—those who scored in the 25th percentile on NAEP—while interest rose among students who scored in the 75th percentile.

Science is winning more students’ enthusiasm. Between 2009 and 2015, the percentage of students calling it a favorite subject rose 2 percentage points in 4th and 12th grades, and 5 points in 8th grade.

And interest in science among the lower-performing students at all grade levels is rising. Fourth and 8th graders scoring in the lowest quartile each showed a 2 percentage-point gain in interest in science, and 12th graders showed a 1 point increase.

Among students in the highest-scoring quartile, interest in science rose wildly among 8th graders: 23 percent of students said science was a favorite subject in 2009, but by 2015, that number was up to 31 percent. In 4th grade, interest among higher-scoring students was flat, at 30 percent, and in 12th grade it rose 6 percentage points, with 33 percent of students reporting that science is a favorite subject.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.