Reading, Math Scores Inch Up

By: - November 7, 2013 12:00 am

Fourth-grade teacher Angela Gaia pats a student on the head during math class in a Memphis elementary school. Only Tennessee and the District of Columbia showed improvement in both reading and math scores for both fourth- and eighth-graders on the Nation’s Report Card. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Mike Brown)

Reading and math scores remained flat or squeaked up by less than a percentage point from 2011 to 2013 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as The Nation’s Report Card.

Students in Tennessee and the District of Columbia were the only ones who improved reading and math scores for both grade levels compared to 2011. In both places, the largest gain was in fourth-grade math scores, which improved by seven points. California experienced a notable rise in its eighth-grade reading score, up seven points.

Average  scores among public school students by state on the Nation’s Report Card

In five states—Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota—scores dropped between 2011 and 2013 in at least one grade level or subject area.

NAEP is given to fourth- and eighth-graders every two years and is widely considered the best measure of academic progress over time and from state to state. Although scores have risen since NAEP was first administered in the early 1990s, progress has slowed in recent years. Math scores have climbed more than reading scores since the NAEP tests were first given.

Other highlights:

  • Math scores inched up by one point on a scale of zero to 500 for fourth- and eighth-graders since 2011.  
  • Reading scores remained flat for fourth-graders and grew by two points for eighth-graders on a scale of zero to 500.
  • Nationwide, 42 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or higher in math and 35 percent did so in reading. In eighth-grade, 36 percent of students are proficient or higher in both math and reading.
  • The percentage of students scoring at least proficient in math ranged in the states from 19 percent to 59 percent. In reading, the percentage of students scoring at least proficient ranged from 17 percent to 48 percent.

Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, said that while the gains between tests tend to be small, “we’re happy to see incremental progress.”

Buckley said he believes the larger gains in the earlier years were likely the result of concerted efforts to improve the performance of lower-scoring students. He said those larger gains are likely to be difficult to repeat, now that the performance of the lowest-achieving students has improved significantly.

The NAEP also measures the so-called “achievement gap” between white students and black or Hispanic students. The gap remained largely unchanged between 2011 and 2013:

  • Maine was the only state to shrink the achievement gap between black and white students, narrowing the difference in fourth-grade math.
  • In four states—Colorado, Iowa, Ohio and Oklahoma—the gap widened in at least one subject and grade level.
  • The gap between white and Hispanic students narrowed in at least one subject and grade in 10 states.
  • The white-Hispanic gap grew in one subject and grade in Maryland, Michigan and Tennessee.

The national numbers include results for both public and private school students while state figures represent only public school students.

Paul Peterson, who directs the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said the data show the country is making less progress now than it did in the previous decade.

“We’re now moving forward by inches,” said Peterson. “We’ve abandoned the accountability system that was put in place in No Child Left Behind,” the 2001 law intended to improve achievement and hold schools accountable for student performance.

“Instead of abandoning accountability, we need to improve it, revise it, enhance it,” Peterson said.

The 2013 NAEP test was administered to 377,000 fourth graders and 342,000 eighth graders from January through March of this year.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Adrienne Lu

Adrienne Lu leads Pew’s efforts to examine how states can support and strengthen the fiscal health of local governments. Her work focuses on detecting and responding to local government fiscal distress, municipal finances, and how state policies have the potential to affect local budgets and economies.