Addressing NAEP Reading Setbacks with Data Rather than Politics

Every two years the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is given to about 600,000 students across the country by the National Center for Educational Statistics. The test assesses reading and mathematics for grades 4 and 8. The reading test specifically assesses students’ ability to read and analyze both fiction and nonfiction. Scores are then released on the Nation’s Report Card.

The 2019 report card released back in October caused strong reactions from many different groups.

Why? Because, while math scores had pretty much held steady since the last test in 2017, “average reading scores decreased at grade 4 for approximately one-third of the states, while the 2019 reading scores were lower in more than half of the states at grade 8 since 2017.” To be more exact, scores dropped in 31 states. Looking back even further, reading scores across the country have been fairly stagnant since 1998.

[Cue the media frenzy and political finger-pointing.]

From all different directions, people started jumping to conclusions about the causes and solutions for this drop in reading scores.

According to The New York Times, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos held a press conference in Washington D.C. on October 30th at which she stated, “this country has a student achievement crisis,” and called for a need for more “education freedom.” Essentially, she pushed the school choice agenda she’s been pushing since joining the president’s cabinet in 2016.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Democratic lawmakers like Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of the House subcommittee in charge of monitoring the Education Department’s budget, argued that more funding was needed, especially for public schools in low-income areas.

On teacher websites, articles popped up with educators pointing towards other causes for the decline. For example, a We Are Teachers article argued that schools are pushing students to read too much and too early in Pre-K and Kindergarten classrooms, and in doing so, are killing enjoyment in reading during students’ formative years.

With so many conflicting points of view, whose ideas are most accurate? If we pause for a moment, ask three crucial questions, and really look at the data closely, some clearer answers emerge.

  1. Which students struggled on the test?

According to Education Dive  at 8th grade, where the largest drop occurred, “reading scores decreased for all racial and ethnic groups, except Asian/Pacific Islander students. Scores also dropped for both males and females and for those eligible and not eligible for subsidized meals.” Based on this, it’s clear that this is not an issue facing one specific demographic.

Therefore, providing more funding for schools with high populations of low-income students won’t necessarily fix the problem.

  1. Were there states that scored well?

Remember, 8th grade reading scores decreased in 31 states. So what happened in the other 19 states? The answer, according to Education Dive: “Only Mississippi saw a significant increase in 4th grade reading. At 8th grade, D.C. schools and two southern states — Louisiana and Mississippi — saw gains in reading scores.”

  1. What is going on in Mississippi?!

Mississippi, which used to be toward the bottom of the list in terms of scores, has moved to the top over the last 5 years. They have also seen increases in their state reading assessments. So how did they do it? State Superintendent Carey Wright, who also spoke in Washington D.C. on October 30th for a panel discussion on the results of the test, said Mississippi’s scores were due to a “laser-like focus on literacy…It’s all around the science of reading. That is really paying off for us.”

This focus on literacy is evident on Mississippi Department of Education site. It started back in 2014 when Mississippi passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, which pushed schools to increase professional development for elementary teachers and create an Individual Reading Plan (IRP) for each student to track their progress from kindergarten to 12th grade.

What they found was that not enough teachers were using scientific, evidence-based approaches to teaching reading. Therefore, Wright said, the state also sends literacy coaches to work with elementary educators, especially early-childhood educators, who help get their students off to a good start with reading. So Mississippi’s results fly somewhat in the face of the argument made that we are teaching literacy skills too early.

The key, they found, was training teachers to use the most up-to-date science around how people learn to read to teach phonics and decoding and then start to delve into comprehension. At the secondary level, the goal shifts to keeping students reading by building an enjoyment of reading and challenging them to comprehend on deeper levels and think critically.

So perhaps additional funding is needed, but not just in schools that serve low-income students. Perhaps it is needed in all schools across the country for focused literacy training and coaching support for all teachers. And let’s acknowledge that, sadly, jobs such as literacy coaches and librarians are often the first to go in schools when budgets get tight. This needs to change if we want our students to become strong readers.

-Megan Panek'

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