American Kids Have Disappointing Reading And Math Scores, But There Are Some Bright Spots

"This isn’t a pattern that we saw coming."

Bad news for America's schools: Student achievement in math and reading is on the decline, according to National Assessment of Education Progress scores released Wednesday.

The National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP -- called the Nation's Report Card -- is an exam given to fourth-grade and eighth-grade students throughout the country by the National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education. While students' scores have increased overall since the 1990s, results released Wednesday show a slight decline between 2013 and 2015.

NAEP is the "largest continuing and nationally representative assessment" of America's students, and has been referred to as the "gold standard" of student assessment.

Only 36 percent of fourth-grade students and 34 percent of eighth-grade students in 2015 scored high enough to be considered proficient or above in reading. In math, 40 percent of fourth-grade students and 33 percent of eighth-grade students scored proficient or above.

While the 2015 results are disappointing, experts caution that they should not yet be interpreted as a downward trend.

"One downturn does not a trend make, and that’s what we’re comfortable in saying about the data," Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of NCES, said on a call with reporters. "We’re trying not to read too much into a decline at this point."

Carr also said the drop in scores was "an unexpected one. ... This isn’t a pattern that we saw coming."

For the most part, states' average scores stayed the same or declined in 2015. In only a few places -- including Mississippi and Department of Defense schools -- did student scores increase. Achievement gaps between white and minority students did not change significantly in 2015 nationwide.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan stands to the side of a news conference in July. Duncan has pushed for caution in interpreting the latest test scores for American students.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan stands to the side of a news conference in July. Duncan has pushed for caution in interpreting the latest test scores for American students.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan similarly pushed for caution in interpreting the latest scores on a call with reporters. He also noted that even though scores dropped in 2015, high school graduation rates have been on the rise.

"There are lots of theories out there I’m already hearing, from resources to demographics, and I’ll try and give you my best preliminary thinking. But I would caution everyone to be careful about drawing conclusions with so many variables," Duncan said. "People need time to dig into this thoughtfully. Anyone who claims to have this all figured out is peddling a personal agenda, rather than an educational one."

The Common Core State Standards were in their beginning phases of implementation in many places in 2015, which could have impacted the latest NAEP scores. The Common Core State Standards are a set of new education benchmarks that have been adopted in most states and have overhauled the way literacy and math are taught. Duncan alluded to this on the call.

"Educators throughout this country have been doing the heavy lifting of some of the biggest changes our schools have seen in decades, retooling their classroom practice to come up to speed with new and higher standards that the large majority of states have adopted," Duncan said. "I’ve said on a number of occasions that we should expect scores in this period to bounce around some, and I think that 'implementation dip' is part of what we’re seeing here."

Schools are also educating a more diverse group of students than they have in the past, including more low-income kids and English language learners. It is unclear how this might be impacting scores.

"Are our public schools becoming more diverse? Absolutely. Is that a great thing? Absolutely," Duncan said. "This is not a problem or a deficit, to be clear, it’s a huge opportunity to change the lives of young people through educational opportunity."

NAEP also measures district-level progress through the Trial Urban District Assessment program. At the district-wide level, a few areas received welcome news. Washington, D.C., saw a notable spike in reading and math scores, as did with Miami-Dade schools.

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