Nation’s Report Card shows big slide in scores as achievement gaps grow

Long-term NAEP scores had been increasing steadily since the assessments were first given in the 1970s
By: | October 14, 2021

Math and reading scores for 13-year-olds fell, and fell sharply, for the first time in the history of the longer-term Nation’s Report Card, based on tests conducted prior to the COVID outbreak.

Gaps between higher- and lower-performing students in most age groups also widened significantly compared to the last time the NAEP Long-Term Trend tests were last administered in 2012. These achievement gaps in reading and math were driven by declines among lower-performing students.

“These data show that student progress declined or was stalled even before the COVID-19 pandemic,” said former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the NAEP. “Clearly, these results raise the alarm at all levels that education policy to change these results must be a top priority.”

NAEP scores had been increasing steadily since the assessments were first given in the 1970s. But on the 2019-2020 tests, 13-year-old students slipped by 3 points in reading and 5 points in math compared to 2012.

Scores for 9-year-olds did not change significantly, and those students will retake the test later his school year to gauge the impact of COVID-19.

“We are still missing critical data about the effects of the pandemic on learning,” said Eric A. Hanushek, a governing board member and the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. “With the 2022 data, we’ll be able to compare the performance of 9-year-olds from just before school closures to two years later.”

The achievement gaps are just the latest indicator of long-entrenched educational inequities the nation’s school system, said Denise Forte, interim CEO at The Education Trust.

“The data … should serve as a thunderous wake-up call for policymakers at all levels to adopt policies and make investments that center the academic and social-emotional needs of underserved students,” Forte said. “The unprecedented federal investment in education through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) provides states and districts with a tremendous opportunity to address unfinished learning and invest in evidence-based and effective policies and practices to support the social-emotional and academic well-being of students who are systemically underserved.”

Insights into reading habits

The Long-Term Trend assessment also surveys students on their reading habits, and the results there are also troubling. More students in both age groups said they never or rarely read for fun compared to surveys conducted in 1984 and 2012.

Among 9-year-olds, about 16% of students reported rarely or never reading for fun in 2020 compared to 10% in 1984 and 2012. For 13-year-olds, the numbers jumped to 22% in 2020 from 8% in 1984.

And 55% of higher-performing 13-year-olds said they read for fun at least once or twice a week, compared to just 31% of lower-performing students in 2020. Higher-performing 13-year-old students are also more likely to be taking algebra (46%) compared to lower-performing students (12%).

Compared to the main NAEP tests, which are given to students in grades 4, 8, and 12, the Long-Term Trend assessments are administered based on age and provide a more extended perspective on student performance over time.

Key long-term NAEP trends

Despite the drops seen from 2012 to 2020, scores for 13-year-olds were higher in comparison to 1971 for reading and to 1973 for mathematics, the first assessment years for each subject. Here are some other key trends:

  • Average 2020 scores in both reading and mathematics were higher for white, Black and Hispanic 9- and 13-year-old students compared to the scores in the 1970s. Compared to 2012, the 2020 reading scores for these groups were not significantly different.
  • Compared to 2012, the 2020 mathematics scores for white, Black and Hispanic 9-year-old students and for white 13-year-old students were not significantly different while the mathematics scores for Black and Hispanic 13-year-old students were lower. See full student group results for reading and for mathematics.
  • The white-Black score gap in average reading scores has narrowed compared to 1971 and the white-Hispanic score gap in average reading scores has narrowed compared to 1975 for both 9- and 13-year-old students. See full score gap results for reading.
  • Compared to 1978, the white−Black score gap in the average mathematics score has narrowed for both 9- and 13-year-old students, and the white-Hispanic score gap has narrowed for 13-year-olds. See full score gap results for math.
  • In comparison to scores in the 1970s, the 2020 scores in reading and mathematics were higher at all selected percentiles (10th, 25th, 50th, 75th, and 90th)—with one exception: the reading score for the lowest-performing 13-year-old students at the 10th percentile was not significantly different from that in 1971.
  • Compared to 2012, the 2020 reading scores for both 9- and 13-year-olds performing at the 10th percentile were lower. In math, scores were lower in 2020 for 9-year-olds at the 10th and 25th percentiles and lower for 13-year-olds performing at the 10th, 25th, and 50th percentiles. See full percentile results for reading and mathematics.
  • The percentage of 13-year-olds taking algebra increased from 16% to 34% from 1986 to 2012, and the percentage taking pre-algebra increased from 19% to 29%. Compared to 2012, however, these percentages decreased in 2020 to 25% taking algebra and 23% taking pre-algebra. See more mathematics survey questionnaire results.