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Nation Shows Mediocre Academic Performance as Pandemic Continues

By Sterling C. Lloyd — September 01, 2020 5 min read
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Amid unequal access to the digital devices, internet service, and instructional support that enable remote learning, the nation’s academic achievement remains stalled, with a baseline of uneven performance among both low- and high-achieving states.

That’s the context for the first full update of the Quality Counts K-12 Achievement Index since 2018, on which the nation receives a grade of C.

The index, which makes up one-third of a state’s overall grade on the Quality Counts 2020 report card, is based largely on 2019 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, offering a detailed portrait of where student achievement stood prior to the pandemic.

It is calculated using 18 distinct indicators in three broad categories: current achievement, trends over time, and poverty-based disparities. Results are determined by reading and math test scores from NAEP, high school graduation rates, and scores on Advanced Placement exams.

In 2019, only the high school graduation rates and AP scores were updated because data from the NAEP assessments—based on tests administered every other year—weren’t available.

On this year’s Achievement Index, the nation as a whole scores 72.8 out of a possible 100 points, down 0.2 points since last year. On a letter-grade basis, most states (31) earn marks of between C and C-minus. But 17 states receive a D-plus or lower.

Massachusetts (85.0) and New Jersey (83.0) lead the nation, posting the only grades of B. At the other end of the spectrum, Alaska gets the lowest score of 61.4, a D-minus. New Mexico (61.7) receives the only other D-minus grade.

The EdWeek Research Center identified five key findings from this year’s analysis.

Massachusetts earns the top spot on the index with the best overall test scores, but ranks lower for equity based on disparities by poverty status.

The Bay State ranks first in the current performance category. It places second in the nation, trailing only Minnesota, for the percent of 4th graders proficient in math on the 2019 NAEP exams and finishes first in 8th grade math proficiency. Similarly, it tops the charts for proficiency in 4th and 8th grade reading.

However, the state ranks just 20th in the equity category. Performance disparities between students eligible and not eligible for the national school lunch program remain relatively large. For instance, Massachusetts ranks 37th for NAEP scale-score differences between low-income students and their more-affluent peers in 8th grade math. Students from wealthier families score substantially higher —a gulf of 30.9 points separates them from those living in poverty.

Other high-performing states also struggle with equity.

Connecticut, for example, ranks fifth in the nation on the index, overall. But it falls to 50th for poverty-based disparities in 4th grade reading with a gap of 34.5 points and 49th in 8th grade math due to a score differential of 37 points. Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are also in the top 10 on the complete index, but in the bottom tier for some equity measures.

Consistent performance across metrics is the exception rather than the rule for states.

Many states have areas of both strength and weakness on the index. In fact, 24 states at some point rank in the top 10 for at least one broad component: current performance, change over time, or equity. But 27 states rank in the bottom 10 in at least one of those categories. Almost all states (47) finish in the top 10 for at least one of the index’s 18 specific indicators. Nearly the same number (48) fall in the bottom 10 for at least one of those metrics. Only Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, and South Carolina were unable to crack the top 10, and only Florida, Massachusetts, and Tennessee were able to avoid a spot in the bottom group on any of the categories.

The 18 indicators on the index provide 18 distinct stories. In fact, 10 different states rank first in the nation on at least one of the metrics.

Some high-performing states have boosted student achievement over time.

Several states have been able to post solid rankings for both current achievement and gains in student success over time. Massachusetts stands in first place for current achievement and takes the seventh spot in the improvement component of the analysis. It’s 10th, for instance, in NAEP scale-score gains on 8th grade math exams where it improved by 8.0 points between 2003 and 2019.

New Jersey is second in the nation for current academic results and third for its achievement trajectory over time. It’s fourth for NAEP scale-score gains in 8th grade math jumping up by 10.4 points since 2003. Maryland and Pennsylvania are also in the top 10 for current performance and the top 15 for achievement trends.

Mississippi made the most progress in the nation on the K-12 Achievement Index.

The state’s score increased by 5.2 points since last year, fueled by increases in the percentage of 4th grade students proficient in reading and math on NAEP.

Nevada improved by 4.1 points on the index, the second-highest gain in the nation. The state’s grade rose from a D-plus to a C, propelled largely by advances in 4th grade reading and math.

Scores also improved by more than 2.5 points in Louisiana (3.7), Tennessee (2.7), and the District of Columbia (2.6). The District has also made strides in achievement over a longer period. It posts by far the nation’s largest scale-score gains on NAEP in 4th grade reading (25.9) and math (29.7) since 2003. Mississippi has the second-largest gains in those areas, 13.9 and 17.8 points, respectively.

New Hampshire (-5.3), Virginia (-3.6), Massachusetts (-3.5), Iowa (-3.4), and Alabama (-3.1) all saw their overall index scores decline by more than three points.

Disparities on NAEP narrowed markedly in four states, but widened substantially in others.

The 4th grade reading scale-score difference between students in low-income families and their wealthier peers narrowed by more than four points in just four states from 2003 to 2019: Illinois (-6.9), Mississippi (-5.4), Nevada (-4.8), and Florida (-4.4). In 8th grade math, only Illinois (-7.7) closed the gap by more than four points. By contrast, disparities in 4th grade reading widened by 11.1 points in Oregon and 17.2 points in the District of Columbia. In 8th grade math, gaps grew by 11.2 points in Ohio, 11.3 points in Washington, and 23.7 points in the District of Columbia.

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened concerns that such gaps in academic performance might expand further due to inequality in access to remote learning and technology.

A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2020 edition of Education Week as Nation Shows Mediocre Academic Performance as Pandemic Continues

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