Assessment Data

Young Adolescents’ Scores Trended to Historic Lows on National Tests. And That’s Before COVID Hit

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 14, 2021 3 min read
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The long-term trends for the nation’s young people have taken a dive in the last decade in reading and especially in math, according to the latest results of the “nation’s report card.”

Results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress Long-Term Trend study, released this morning, find math scores in 2020 significantly declined for students at ages 9 and 13 since the test was last given in 2012.

“None of these results are impressive; all of the results were concerning, but the math results were particularly daunting, and particularly for 13-year-olds,” said Peggy Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP. “I’ve been reporting these results for years, decades. And I’ve never reported a decline like this.”

Reading scores for most students stayed flat for both age groups from 2012 to 2020, but they showed 6- and 7-point drops, respectively, for the lowest-performing 10 percent of students at ages 9 and 13.

While the main and trend NAEP are not directly comparable, the trend NAEP’s results fall on broadly similar lines as the main assessments’.
They reveal an ongoing split in achievement trajectories seen in both national and international assessments: In math, reading, science, and social studies, the top-performing students have held steady or improved slightly over time, while the students who struggle the most have fallen further and further behind.

Overall math scores for Black, Hispanic, and white 9-year-olds as well as white 13-year-olds flattened since 2012, while the performance of Black and Hispanic teenagers dropped. That led the math-score gap between Black and white young adolescents to widen from 28 points in 2012 to 35 in 2020.

Moreover, while 34 percent of 13-year-olds scored at least 300 out of 500 in math in 2012, only 32 percent of their peers in 2020 did so. This means that nearly two thirds of 13-year-olds could struggle with moderately complex math reasoning and procedures, such as finding the area of a square or gauging a percent a part represents of a whole.

Among 9-year-olds, only 44 percent achieved at least 250 scale points, 3 percentage points fewer than in 2012. This means fewer of these students, and significantly less than half, could consistently multiply a three-digit number by a single-digit number or use the context of a situation to decide basic probability.

The NAEP Long-Term Trends study is a separate set of math and reading tests from the better-known main NAEP given every other year. Rather than testing students in particular grades, the trend NAEP uses a stable set of questions from the first administration in the early 1970s and tests a nationwide sample of students at ages 9, 13, and 17.

In early 2020, the NCES squeaked in administering NAEP to 9- and 13-year-olds just before most schools closed to curb the spreadof COVID-19, but it was not able to include 17-year-olds in the latest results.

Less Pleasure Reading, Less Rigorous Math

While one can’t identify exactly what has caused the precipitous decline among young adolescents, students have definitely shown less engagement with some reading and math activities associated with better performance.

Background surveys conducted with the tests show that in spite of wide-scale state and district efforts to introduce algebra in middle school, only a quarter of 13-year-olds have taken algebra, a 9 percentage-point drop since 2012. Only 23 percent of the adolescents had taken at least pre-algebra, compared with 29 percent in 2012, with the rest taking regular math courses. In fact, the share of young teenagers who were taking no math classes at all, while very small, doubled from 1 percent to 2 percent in that time.

Carr noted that separate NCES research suggests that districts trying to move algebra to lower grades may have more show than substance: “These classes’ [content], especially in the honors classes, are not commensurate with what is actually being taught in those classes. Schools may be reporting that they’re teaching Algebra 1, but when you look at the actual content, it is not really Algebra 1, or there’s something less than Algebra 1.”

Similarly, far fewer students in NAEP reported they are reading for pleasure in 2020 versus 2012. The percentage who reported they “never or hardly ever” read for fun jumped from 9 percent in 1984 to 16 percent in 2020 among 9-year-olds, and from 8 percent to 29 percent of 13-year-olds in the same time period.

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