Reading & Literacy What the Research Says

5 Things to Know About the Slide in Reading Achievement on NAEP

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 24, 2022 7 min read
Young girl lying on her back reading a book which is covering her face.
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Students’ reading achievement in both 4th and 8th grades fell three points during the pandemic, according to the tests known as the Nation’s Report Card.

The decline put the nation’s students roughly on par with students’ reading achievement in the first state-level National Assessment of Educational Progress in 1992.

The main NAEP, administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, takes a snapshot of national and state-level student achievement in reading and math every two years, but was delayed by the pandemic from 2021 to spring 2022. It provides a representative sample of reading performance based on more than 108,000 4th graders and more than 111,000 8th graders in every state.

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Image of declining scores in reading and math NAEP.
Illustration by Gina Tomko/Education Week and iStock/Getty

“Reading is foundational to success in school and life,” said Nardi Routten, a 4th grade teacher in New Bern, N.C., and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, in a statement. “Schools need to take evidence-based action, aligned with the science of reading, and work closely with teachers to ensure that elementary and middle school students become strong readers and can access more complex work as they progress through their education.”

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Reading results are grim, but not as bad as in math.

No state improved in reading in either grades 4 or 8, but 8th graders in the Los Angeles Unified school district and in the Department of Defense schools, which serve children of military families, made gains from 2019 to 2020. Maine had the sharpest reading decline in 8th grade, falling eight points, while Virginia’s 4th graders fell 10 points since 2019, the largest reading decline of any state in that grade.

However, NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr pointed to urban school districts’ reading scores as “bright spots, pockets of resilience, amidst all the chaos of the pandemic.”

Most of the country’s largest districts participating in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment held steady in reading at both grades during the pandemic. Only nine of the 26 TUDA districts declined in average reading scores in 4th grade, and only four declined in 8th grade.

Nationwide, Black, Hispanic, Native American, and white students all declined in reading in 4th grade in 2022 compared to 2019, though only white students also declined in 8th grade.

Moreover, students performed worse in reading in both grades, be they boys or girls, low-income or wealthier students across most of the country. Only 8th graders in the West showed no significant change in reading achievement in 2022.

But reading performance was less troubling than math, with results showing historic lows in that subject at both grade levels.

2. Fewer than 1 in 3 students read proficiently at either grade.

NAEP measures reading comprehension of both literary texts, such as fiction and poetry, and informational texts, such as argumentation and procedural documents. Students at both grades are gauged on three “cognitive targets;" their ability to locate and remember information, interpret meaning, and critique and evaluate texts.

In 2022, 4th and 8th graders performed worse across the board than they had in 2019, correctly answering fewer questions in all three cognitive areas, working with both literary and informational texts. Only a third of 4th graders and 31 percent of 8th graders read at the proficient level in 2022, significantly fewer in both grades compared to before the pandemic.

Moreover, 37 percent of 4th graders and 30 percent of 8th graders performed below NAEP’s lowest benchmark—the basic level—in 2022. That’s the largest pool of struggling readers since 2003 in 4th grade and 1994 in 8th grade.

In practical terms, that means significantly more 4th grade students weren’t able to make simple inferences about story characters or plot, or to identify a main idea that was explicitly stated in an informational text. Among 8th graders, more students in 2022 couldn’t identify or provide support for their judgments about an author’s intent in a fictional character’s motivation, nor could they recognize inferences based on main ideas and supporting details in texts that made arguments.

“What we need to take away from this is that ... now what we’re seeing is students at the bottom of the distribution dropping even faster [than before the pandemic], and we’re also seeing students who were not showing declines—meaning students at the higher-performing levels, who were holding steady before the pandemic or even improving—now all the students regardless of their ability are dropping” in achievement, Carr said.

3. Reading teachers are more comfortable with virtual instruction, but not closing learning gaps.

Nearly all students returned to full-time in-person classes in 2021-22, but after two years of off-and-on virtual schooling, teachers reported in a 2022 background survey given in tandem with NAEP that they have grown more confident in their ability to handle future disruptions.

More than 9 out of 10 students in 4th and 8th grades had teachers who were reasonably confident that they could “probably” or “definitely” teach a distance-learning lesson in real time and provide students with feedback virtually. Likewise, more than 80 percent of students in both grades had teachers who were at least moderately confident that they could create engaging distance-learning materials and help students who had trouble with the format.

By contrast, fewer than half of students in either grade had a teacher who was “quite” or “extremely” confident that they would be able to address the gaps in students’ reading skills, and teachers in both grades showed lower levels of work satisfaction compared to teachers in 2019.

4. Intensive tutoring may not have gained as much ground as intended.

While many districts pledged to invest federal and state recovery funding in intensive tutoring—including 1-to-1 or very small group instruction several times a week—the share of students actually receiving such supports has not yet increased.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona noted that 56 percent of schools reported—in a separate NCES study—using intensive, high-dosage tutoring to help students recover lost academic ground. However, only 25 percent of 8th graders and 34 percent of 4th graders in 2022 reported they received tutoring in English/language arts at least once or twice a week. That’s actually two percentage points fewer 4th graders who received frequent reading tutoring than in 2019, and no difference in tutored 8th graders, compared to before the pandemic, NAEP’s background data show.

Likewise, 4th graders were no more likely in 2022 than in 2019 to have a literacy specialist or coach available to them or their teachers, though the share of full-time reading coaches rose compared to part-time coaches during the pandemic. However, 8th grade students were three percentage points more likely to have full- or part-time reading specialists at their schools in 2022, about 42 percent, than in 2019.

Patricia Levesque, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd), recommended that states and districts dedicate more money to providing middle and high school literacy coaches to help teachers in upper grades cope with students with holes in their foundational reading skills.

“We talk about how kids will learn how to read from K-3 and then from 4th grade on they’re reading to learn, which means there isn’t a reading class anymore; there’s a lit class or there’s a language arts class, where the assumption is kids can read,” Levesque said.

“A lot of content-area teachers—the science teacher, the math teacher, the social studies teacher—in middle school grades or higher, are not aware of what are the techniques, what are the things that I can do in my content-area class in order to help struggling readers,” Levesque said. “That’s why middle school literacy coaches are going to be really important in order to give those teachers the tools that they need to help struggling readers.”

5. Young students show some signs of bouncing back this fall, but there’s a long way to go.

Students took the reading NAEP last spring. At least one study taken this fall suggests students too young to participate in NAEP may be starting to rebound from the academic disruptions of the last few years.

The assessment group Amplify released data last week on the reading progress of more than 300,000 K-3 students in 43 states who took the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, a commonly used early reading assessment. It found 55 percent of 3rd graders—and only a third of kindergartners—are on track to read at grade level by the end of the 2022-23 school year.

While that’s lower than the share of students on track in reading in K-3 before the pandemic, there were more students on track this fall than in fall 2021 in every grade except 3rd.

“Maybe there’s some promise in that we’re seeing some benefit [in fall reading performance] in 2022-23 versus what we’d seen in 2021-22,” said Paul Gazzerro, director of data analysis for Amplify and the author of that study, before the NAEP results were released. “So while NAEP, I would suspect, is going to rain down more bad news and fear ... one might argue that if we see the system starting to turn around, which we are, that maybe the next set of 9-year-olds that we look at two years later will start to look a little bit better.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as ... The Slide in Reading Achievement

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