Background on the Nation’s Report Card
Referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card”, the biennial National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) is a comprehensive measurement of students’ performance in Math and Reading in fourth and eighth grades. The data, broken down on a macroscopic nationwide and state-to-state level, as well as on microscopic racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic levels, represents the progress made (or lack thereof) by states and districts in achieving stronger educational outcomes for their students. The NAEP examination is the only standardized national examination given to a representative sample of fourth and eighth graders across demographic groups in each state to track their proficiency levels. NAEP data serves as a catalyst for important education policy conversations and can often present the potential for implementing more equitable practices to close opportunity and achievement gaps.
Overview and Significance
Barring a one-point increase in fourth grade Math proficiency scores between 2017 and 2019, national 2019 NAEP data shows a regression in students’ proficiency levels in both Math and Reading in fourth and eighth grades. Students across all ethnic groups posted lower results, with low proficiency levels particularly affecting students from low-income families, African American students and Hispanic students. Data show an overall decrease in both the number of proficient readers and basic readers in both fourth and eighth grade, revealing a widening gap between the nation’s highest- and lowest-performing students.
Close examination of the data also exposes a persistent gap between racial and ethnic groups in both Math and Reading. Nationally, on a scale from 0-500, white students scored 32 points higher (292) on the 2019 eighth grade Math assessment than African American students (260). White students also scored 24 points higher than Hispanic students (268) on the same assessment. On the fourth grade Reading assessment for 2019, White students (230) scored 26 points higher than African American students (204), and 21 points higher than Hispanic students (209). Among all students, the average eighth grade Math score on the 2019 assessment was 281, a slight decrease from 282 in 2017 and well above the average scores for African American and Hispanic students. The average 2019 fourth grade Reading score among all students was 219, a slight drop from 221 in 2017 and also higher than the averages posted by African American and Hispanic students.
In addition to disparities between racial and ethnic groups, gaps continue to exist between students who are eligible and ineligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a key indicator of poverty and the subsequent opportunity gaps it perpetuates. Nationally, students who are NSLP-eligible scored an average of 208 on the 2017 fourth grade Reading assessment and 207 on the 2019 assessment, while students who are NSLP-ineligible scored a 236 and 235, respectively. Score gaps revealed by the eighth grade Math assessment are similarly troubling. Nationally, students who are NSLP-eligible scored an average of 267 in 2017 and 266 in 2019 on the eighth grade Math assessment; students who are NSLP-ineligible posted an average within three points of proficiency (297) in 2017 and dropped one point, to 296, in 2019.
An extensive amount of research exists about how to effectively teach reading strategies to instill basic reading skills in students and reverse current trends of poor performance; however, the perpetual backslide in reading performance at critical stages in a child’s educational career – the culmination of elementary school and middle school, respectively – is one piece of evidence pointing to the glaring gap of research-based professional development for Reading teachers. A 1986 study, The Simple View of Reading, confirmed the key roles of two overarching skills in measuring reading proficiency: accuracy and fluency, and comprehension. Cited numerous times by scholars in curricular and instructional development since its release over three decades ago, the same study continues to maintain relevance as a definitive authority on reading science. The data reveal states’ immediate prerogative to begin paying greater attention to the science behind teaching reading by taking into account the research available and, in turn, equipping educators with the skills necessary to implement the practices outlined in the research.
Conversely, trend lines show more promising outcomes in Math than in Reading. Since the first year of NAEP in 1990, a slow but steady improvement in fourth and eighth grade Math scores presents an opportunity for more intentional instructional practices to push students toward proficiency. There has been a tremendous amount of focus on math instruction in the United States, and state and national NAEP results in recent iterations of the assessment’s administration have shown improvement that may be rooted in both the increased emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses and improved professional development for teachers. The next step, and arguably the most important to demonstrate sustained improvement, will be recognizing the inextricable link between Reading and Math, and working to bridge the gap in non-proficient students’ knowledge in both subject areas by placing more emphasis on high-quality Reading instruction in various academic courses and contexts.