American Math and Reading Skills Are Slowly Getting Better

But the achievement gap between whites and minorities is wide and persistent. What the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress scores say about American education today.
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Every two years, hundreds of thousands of American fourth and eighth grade students take a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The test evaluates students’ reading and math abilities through reading comprehension questions and grade-appropriate math problems.

The results of the test have provided a snapshot of American education since 1990. Over the last two decades, scores have been rising, but slowly. The 2013 results are out, and the national average scores have increased—just barely—since 2011. Here's what this year's score report says about the state of American education today.

Math and reading skills are improving—slowly

Math and reading skills haven’t changed much in the last two years, according to new National Assessment of Educational Progress scores. Fourth and eighth grade students averaged one point higher on math than they did in 2011 on tests that are scored out of 500 points. Eighth grade students scored two points higher on average on the reading test, and fourth grade students showed no change in their average reading scores since 2011.

But steady increases of one or two points every other year on NAEP math tests have added up to big changes since 1990. Fourth grade math averages have increased by 28 points and eighth grade math averages by 22 points over the last two decades.

Minority students’ scores are going up slowly, too

Some minority groups have made small gains since 2011. Hispanic students improved by two points at the fourth and eighth grade levels. American Indian/Alaska Native students and Asian/Pacific Islander students both improved by four points in eighth grade reading.

No minority group improved scores in fourth grade reading, but several saw gains in the eighth grade. The average score for black eighth graders rose by two points. Hispanic eighth graders improved by three points and Asian/Pacific Islander scores went up by five points.

 

Reading and math skills vary widely between states

As we reported last month, there’s a huge difference between the strongest and weakest states. This year's NAEP scores reflect that devision: In fourth-grade math, for example, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire tied at the top with a score of 253. Louisiana and Mississippi tied at the bottom with a score of 231. In eighth grade reading, Massachusetts and Department of Defense schools topped the list with average scores of 277. At the bottom of the list, D.C. scored 248.

The achievement gap remains wide on a national level

Nationally, there was no significant change to the 2011 score gaps between white students and their black or Hispanic peers in reading or in math.

In fourth grade math, white students scored 26 points higher than black students and 19 points higher than Hispanic students. In the eighth grade, white students averaged 31 points above black students and 22 points above Hispanic students.

The gaps were similar on the reading tests. In the fourth grade, white students scored 26 points above black students and 25 points above Hispanic students. In the eighth grade, white students performed 26 points higher than black students and 20 points higher than Hispanic students.

The gaps have narrowed a bit since the 1990s, when score differences hovered around 30 points.

Only a handful of states are making progress on the achievement gap

When it came to narrowing the achievement gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers, only a few states improved on their 2011 performance. Maine was the only state to narrow the 2011 achievement gap between white and black students in fourth grade math. No state narrowed the gap between white and black students in eighth grade math, fourth grade reading, or eighth grade reading.

States were more successful at narrowing the 2011 score gap between white and Hispanic students. Although no states narrowed the gap in fourth grade math, Nevada, Wyoming, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Maryland significantly narrowed the gap in eighth grade math. Colorado and Indiana narrowed the gap in fourth grade reading; Utah, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey did the same for eighth grade reading scores.

D.C. has the largest achievement gap; Hawaii and West Virginia have the smallest

The District of Columbia had the largest score gap between white students and black or Hispanic students in each subject and grade level. Its largest gap appeared in the fourth grade reading test; 62 points separated white and black students.

Hawaii had the smallest gap between black and white students in fourth grade reading (eight points) and West Virginia had the smallest gaps on the other three tests (between three and 11).

The fourth grade math score gap between white and black students was largest in D.C., Connecticut, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin. In eighth grade math, D.C., Wisconsin, and Nebraska had the largest gaps. In reading, D.C., Ohio, and Wisconsin had the largest gaps for fourth graders. For the eighth grade test, D.C., Illinois, and Wisconsin had the largest gaps.

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Julia Ryan is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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