National Report Card: Students Score Modestly Better in Math, While Reading Stays the Same

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Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released today show that while students have made slight gains in math in the past two years, performance in reading remains largely unchanged.

These findings come courtesy of Education Department’s National Center for Educational Statistics, which administers the NAEP — often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, as it is the largest nationally representative measure of student achievement in the U.S. — every two years as a way to provide a snapshot of student performance in math and reading. This year, 422,000 fourth graders and 343,000 eighth graders took the exams between January and March.

The good news is students in both fourth and eighth grades earned the highest scores ever recorded on the national math exam, which has been administered since 1990. Fourth graders scored an average score of 241 (on a 0-500 point scale), a one-point increase from 2009 and a 28-point increase from 1990. Eighth graders showed similar gains, with an average score of 284, up one point from 2009 and 21 points from 1990.

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But despite modest gains in math over the last two decades, average reading scores on the national reading exam, which has been administered since 1992, have barely budged. This year, eighth graders scored an average of 265 points, a one-point increase from 2009 and only a five-point increase from 1992. In the fourth grade, scores were even worse. Average reading scores among fourth graders have been stuck at 221 since 2007, a mere four points above where they were in 1992. In a prepared statement, David Driscoll, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which develops the exam, called the fourth grade reading scores “deeply disappointing.”

“The modest increases in NAEP scores are a reason for concern as much as optimism,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “It’s clear that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation’s children to compete.”

One big area of concern is how few students have achieved proficiency in either area. Barely more than one-third of students in both grades are proficient or higher in reading, while in math 40% of fourth grade students and 35% of eighth graders scored at proficient levels or higher.

The test results also make clear there has been little progress in closing the achievement gap between white students and other races. Over the past 20 years, white students have outperformed their black and Hispanic counterparts consistently by 20 or more points. The only significant change this year was a slight narrowing of the gap in reading scores among white and Hispanic eighth graders.

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“The NAEP demographics should sound a warning alarm that our schools, communities and work force can’t afford to have our largest and fastest growing minority falling behind,” said Sharon Darling, founder and president of the National Center for Family Literacy said in a statement emailed to TIME.

But, achievement gaps aside, black and Hispanic students have made considerable gains over time. Overall, Asian students outperformed every other racial group on the tests. The gender gap also remains largely unchanged among both grade levels and subjects as female students continue to outperform their male peers.

The NAEP scores also provide a state-by-state comparison. Hawaii was the only state to improve scores in both math and reading at both grade levels. Meanwhile, fourth-grade math scores declined in New York and eighth-grade math scores decreased in Missouri, and both Missouri and South Dakota saw declines in reading scores.

Unsurprisingly, the NAEP scores show children in the fourth grade who say they read for fun almost every day scored significantly higher than their peers who do not.

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Kayla Webley is a Writer-Reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley or on Facebook at facebook.com/kaylawebley. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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