Amid a global pandemic, widespread school closures and fear of student learning loss, the just-released 2019 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed a slight decline in 12th-grade reading compared to 2015, with scores holding steady overall in math. The results also show an alarming and widening gap between students who generally perform well in school, and those who already struggle academically, with the lowest-performing students contributing to the drop in scores.
Administered every four years, test results are reported as average scores on a 0 to 500 scale and as percentages of students performing at or above the NAEP achievement levels: Basic, Proficient and Advanced. The average 2019 reading score dropped two points since 2015 on the NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, and the percentage of students at or above Proficient held steady at 37 percent. The average math score did not differ significantly from 2015 — 24 percent of students performed at or above Proficient in 2019.
In addition to the averaged scores across the nation, the NAEP also reports scores at five selected percentiles to show the progress made by lower- (10th and 25th percentiles), middle- (50th percentile), and higher- (75th and 90th percentiles) performing students. Unfortunately, the decline in reading scores was driven by score decreases for lower-performing students, and notably, lower-performing males. There was no significant change in the percentage of 12th-grade students performing at or above Proficient in 2019 compared to 2015; however, 30 percent of 12th-graders performed below Basic in 2019, which was 2 percentage points higher than in 2015.
In math, 40 percent of students scored below the Basic level, an increase of 2 percentage points compared to 2015. Twenty-four percent of 12th-grade students performed at or above the Proficient level in 2019, which was not significantly different from the percentage of students at the same achievement level in 2015. While there was no significant change in the average math score at grade 12 in 2019 compared to 2015, scores did decrease for lower-performing students at the 10th and 25th percentiles.
“Not only are the students furthest behind not catching up to their higher-performing peers, the gaps appear to be widening,” said Paul Gasparini, principal of Jamesville-DeWitt High School in DeWitt, N.Y., and member of the National Assessment Governing Board. “That should concern all of us, including educators and policymakers, who are committed to building a more equitable education system, economy, and society.”
The NAEP notes that, “students performing at or above the NAEP Proficient level on NAEP assessments demonstrate solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter. It should be noted that the NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent grade-level proficiency as determined by other assessment standards,” meaning, that NAEP standard is higher.
The assessments were administered from January to March 2019 to a nationally representative sample of 12th-graders from about 3,500 schools. Students took the assessments on paper and on tablets, which marked the first time 12th-grade NAEP takers used a digitally based administration.
NAEP survey assessment
As part of the 2019 NAEP reading assessment, 12th-grade students were asked about their postsecondary plans. In 2019, 61 percent of students reported that they had applied or been accepted to a four-year college, 33 percent of students reported that they had applied or been accepted to a two-year college, and 6 percent of students reported that they had been accepted to a technical training program. In addition, 26 percent of students reported that they had talked with a military recruiter and 4 percent reported that they had enlisted in the military. The NAEP notes that students’ responses were collected from January to March of 2019. “Student-reported acceptance results and postsecondary plans may have changed if the data were collected later in the year.”
Students were also asked about the mathematics courses they had taken. Compared to students performing below the 25th percentile, a larger percentage of students performing at or above the 75th percentile in 2019, 2015 and 2005 reported taking more advanced courses such as trigonometry or algebra II, pre-calculus or calculus as their highest-level mathematics course. A larger percentage of students performing at or above Proficient in 2019, 2015 and 2005 reported taking more advanced courses compared to students performing below Basic. However, trends are starting to turn, with a larger percentage of lower performers taking more advanced mathematics courses compared to previous assessment years.
In a statement analyzing the results from National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP, Commissioner James “Lynn” Woodworth expressed concern over this trend. “Our analysis of the background questionnaires students completed about their educational experiences revealed that 12th-graders have been taking more advanced math courses, and this shift toward more rigorous courses is particularly notable among lower-performing students,” Woodworth said. “Yet this shift toward more rigorous course-taking has not corresponded with an increase in scores, as one might expect; instead, this shift toward more rigorous course-taking runs parallel to a decline in scores for lower-performing twelfth-graders. We need a closer examination of the relationship between course-taking and achievement.”