The 2017 scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – the biennial test of US student performance in math and reading – were released last week, and the results in both subjects were underwhelming. Fourth and eighth-grade math scores and fourth-grade reading results were unchanged from 2015 with eighth-grade reading showing only the slightest bump.
Of course, one year’s data does not make a trend, so let’s add some context. Since 1990 – the first year for which we have data — fourth and eighth-graders have been making steady and substantial gains in mathematics, 27 and 20 points respectively. A ballpark estimate is that 10 points on the NAEP scale translates into roughly one year’s worth of learning. Reading ability hasn’t kept quite the same pace but is still largely improved over 1992 (the first year of data for that subject): fourth-graders gained five points and eighth–graders improved by seven.
Over that time period, gains were posted in both subjects by white, black, and Hispanic students as well as students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch. Moreover, the improvement was accelerated for black fourth-graders and Hispanic eighth-graders resulting in significant gap-narrowing between them and their white peers.
But while the long-term view is still pretty good, recent NAEP administrations are sufficiently lackluster to prompt us to stop and go “hmmm.” The first warning sign was raised in 2015 when scores for fourth and eighth–graders in math and in reading dipped by one to three points. Not a huge decline, to be sure. And again, one year’s data is not a cause for panic (see above). But it was unexpected given the upwards trajectory we had been seeing for 25 years. And we now have two consecutive administrations with no gains to speak of.
Some other results to ponder:
- Between 2015 and 2017, the gap between low- and high-performers widened in both subjects at grades four and eight. This suggests our efforts to improve outcomes are not effectively reaching our lowest achievers.
- Along those lines, three groups saw decreases in mathematics: low-income students, students in city schools, and students with disabilities.
- Despite our progress at narrowing achievement gaps between white students and students of color, the gaps remain substantial (see table).
While most states showed no gains, there were a few standouts, including Florida which was the one state to improve in math since 2015. Likewise, Mississippi fourth–graders gained in both math and reading since 2013. But in general, the nation is scratching its collective head to explain the current stagnation.
Some state education officials have questioned whether NAEP’s move to online administration in 2017 has disadvantaged many students who haven’t had as much experience with digital platforms as others. Education advocates and so-called reformers are using the news to blame policies they don’t like or argue for the ones they do. Other possibilities: Are the scores lagging indicators of the impact of post-recession budget cuts? After decades of progress, has the nation, like a zealous weight-watcher, hit that dreaded plateau? All of the above?
At this point, it’s all speculation. We should hear more as researchers and analysts dig deeper into correlations between state policies and NAEP scores for clues.