American students’ skill levels in mathematics and reading have risen marginally since 2011 in the fourth and eighth grades, according to the latest findings from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). However, The Nation’s Report Card: 2013 Mathematics and Reading, which was released publicly today, also shows that challenges to student success remain.
Although the nation’s eighth graders are technically performing at their highest levels ever in both the mathematics and reading categories, students’ gains in reading skills have not quite kept pace with their gains in mathematics during the same period, the report shows. Also, fourth-grade achievement in reading lags behind the gains that eighth graders have made in recent years, and achievement gaps in both subjects are still evident between certain racial/ethnic groups, and among specific states.
According to the report, fourth graders’ average reading scores in 2013 are flat since the previous assessment in 2011, but up about two points for eighth graders. The report also shows that, compared with 1992—the first year for which reading assessment scores are available—average US reading scores in 2013 are up about five points for fourth graders, higher than in all previous years except 2011, and up by about eight points for eighth graders to the highest level ever achieved in that grade.
Students’ mathematics scores in 2013 are up about one point each for both grades since the 2011 assessment. When compared with 1990—the first year for which mathematics assessment scores are available—average US scores have improved much more dramatically: by about 28 points for fourth graders and about 22 points for eighth graders, the highest levels ever achieved in both grades.
National, continuing assessment
The Nation’s Report Card, also known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), is a nationally representative and continuing assessment of US students; it is overseen by Jack Buckley, the NCES Commissioner, while its policies are set by the National Assessment Governing Board.
Testing for the NAEP periodically covers mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, and US history. In 2014, it will also include Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL). The assessments are administered uniformly using the same sets of test booklets across the nation. Grades 4 and 8 are chosen for the math and reading assessments “because they represent critical junctures in academic achievement,” according to the governing board.
The 2013 NAEP was given to more than 377,000 fourth graders and 342,000 eighth graders in public and private schools in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and US Department of Defense schools. It quantifies student performance in two ways, through scale scores and achievement levels of “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced.” The standards for these levels—concerning what students should know and be able to do for each subject and each grade—are set by the governing board.
Slow gains in reading
In the reading category, today’s NAEP shows the percentage of the nation’s fourth-grade students performing at or above the level of “proficient” in 2013 at 35 percent, compared with 34 percent in 2011 and 28 percent in 1992. At the same time, 36 percent of eighth graders are at or above the level of “proficient” in 2013, compared with 33 percent in 2011 and 29 percent in 1992.
In comparison, the percentage of students still below the “basic” level of achievement is lower in 2013 for both the fourth and eighth grades than it has ever been: at 32 and 22 percent, respectively, compared with 33 and 24 percent in 2011, and 38 and 31 percent in 1992.
Other positive findings since 2011 include higher eighth-grade reading scores for most racial/ethnic groups overall (including black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students as their scores rose alongside those of white students); higher scores for eighth graders at all five of the percentile levels by two or three points; and at least 15 states achieving a level of “proficient” in reading that’s higher than the national average for both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, Commissioner Buckley notes. He adds, “We see a very interesting story in grade eight reading.”
And even though these year-on-year gains are “modest,” as David P. Driscoll, chair of the governing board, puts it, he also notes that “some states have notable improvements, and over time all of these improvements add up to higher achievement overall.”
For example, California’s eighth-grade reading scores in 2013 are up seven points from 2011, and the state has narrowed the gap in reading achievement between its white and Hispanic students in the eighth grade. At the same time, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York have each narrowed this same white/Hispanic achievement gap for their fourth-grade students.
Unfortunately, when it comes to fourth graders’ reading scores when broken out by racial/ethnic demographic, the only average that has risen since 2011 has been for white students, the NAEP shows—although the white/black achievement gap has narrowed since 1992.
Only five states/jurisdictions (the Department of Defense schools, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Tennessee, and Washington) show gains in both their fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores in 2013 compared with 2011, while nine states currently show gains in only their eighth-grade scores, and reading scores in three states (Massachusetts, Montana, and North Dakota) actually were lower in 2013 than in 2011 for fourth-grade students. In Oklahoma, meanwhile, scores were lower for both grades.
Math achievement builds
Mathematics proficiency is growing much more steadily, building on previous years’ significant gains, the NAEP reveals. About 42 percent of the nation’s fourth-grade students are performing at or above the level of “proficient” in 2013, compared with 41 percent in 2011 and only 13 percent in 1990, a huge increase over time. For eighth graders, 36 percent of students in 2013 are at or above the level of “proficient,” compared with 34 percent in 2011 and 15 percent in 1990.
The percentages of students still below the “basic” level of achievement in mathematics has hit new lows this year: 17 percent for fourth graders and 26 percent for eighth graders, compared with 18 and 27 percent in 2011 and a whopping 50 and 48 percent in 1990.
“Today’s results give me hope, as more students are performing at or above the ‘proficient’ level—which tells me that they are demonstrating competency over challenging subject matter when it comes to math and reading,’ Driscoll says.
Other math highlights of the NAEP: students in 16 states/jurisdictions have achieved higher mathematics scores in 2013 compared with 2011 levels; math scores of the nation’s Hispanic students have improved for both the fourth and eighth grades; fourth-grade math scores in Tennessee and the District of Columbia rose seven points each; New Jersey and Rhode Island both narrowed the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students for both grade levels in math; and Maine narrowed the gap in achievement between black and white students in fourth-grade mathematics.
Scores for fourth graders in mathematics continue to increase as well,” says Commissioner Buckley. “We also see score increases in both grades and both subjects in three states/jurisdictions—the Department of Defense schools, the District of Columbia, and Tennessee.”
Common Core, credited
Notably, all eight states that had implemented the Common Core State Standards prior to this year’s NAEP show improvement in at least math or reading and none showed declines, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan points out this morning in a prepared statement about the report.
“Given the rapid and comprehensive changes that America’s educators are implementing in classrooms across the nation, it is to their credit that we are seeing the strongest performance in the history of the NAEP,” Duncan says. “Our national progress makes me optimistic that local leaders and educators are showing the way to raising standards and driving innovation in the next few years.”
Duncan adds, “It is encouraging to see progress in tough economic times, when so many states and local communities have struggled with significant cuts to their education budgets.”
To examine the data further, stakeholders can visit the NAEP’s new interactive web reporting format, which allows one to examine student performance based on selected demographic characteristics—such as race/ethnicity, gender, or students’ eligibility for the National School Lunch Program—and even view what questions students must answer to be deemed ‘proficient’ in a subject.
The online version of the report and its related graphics also offers site visitors a look at how each state is performing, a tool to compare states to each other, and instructional videos to help make the data “even more accessible and usable than in the past,” Buckley says.
Buckley notes, “This is the first of several reports we will be releasing in the coming months. We also assessed mathematics and reading in 21 large urban districts around the country and those results will be released later this year. In addition, we assessed mathematics and reading at grade 12 in 2013, both nationally and in a pilot program at the state level involving 13 states.” Those results are due in 2014.