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National Math Assessment Scores Creep Up But Stagnate in Reading

National achievement in math has outpaced achievement in reading for fourth and eighth graders.

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American fourth and eighth graders took a small step forward in math achievement but stayed relatively stagnant in reading scores between 2009 and 2011, according to the latest national assessment of those subjects, released this morning.

Average reading achievement scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a government exam given to a nationally representative sample of public and private school students, remained the same for fourth graders and inched up one point for eighth graders. In math, average scores increased one point for both fourth and eighth graders.

Since 1990, math scores have increased an average of 28 points for fourth graders and an average of 21 points for eighth graders. This year's modest increases are "good news," according to David Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, but compared to previous spikes, they're nothing to write home about. In a statement, he said there was "nothing very startling or notable" about today's results.

"We must now find a way to regain the momentum in math and accelerate student progress in both subjects," he said.

According to a November 2010 NAEP report, scores for 12th graders saw similarly small increases: Between 2005 and 2009, average scores increased two points in reading and three points in math.

[Read about high school seniors' scores on the NAEP geography exam.]

The NAEP governing board sets three performance benchmarks: basic, proficient, and advanced. In math, more students are performing at or above the "proficient" level than ever before. Forty percent of fourth graders are proficient in math, compared with just 13 percent in 1990, and 35 percent of eighth graders are proficient in math, compared with 15 percent in 1990, the earliest year available for NAEP results in the subject.

In reading, the growth of students performing at or above the "proficient" level has been much slower. In both grades, 34 percent of students scored at or above that level, compared with 29 percent in 1992, the earliest year available for NAEP results in the subject.

Carol Rasco, president of the nonprofit Reading is Fundamental, says she is disappointed with the slow achievement growth in the subject.

"I think it's bad news any time we're not seeing progress based on the low baseline we're starting from," she says. "That baseline and overall scores on the continuum haven't moved for so many years."

Rasco says it's important to improve early reading levels before students fall too far behind in the subject. She says students learn to mask illiteracy in class, something that can follow them to high school.

[Learn about high school seniors' scores on the U.S. history NAEP exam.]

"It's demoralizing as a young child to not be catching on to reading," she says. A 1995 study by childhood researchers Betty Hart & Todd Risley found that 3-year-old children in low-income families knew an average of about 3,000 words, while children in more affluent families knew an average of about 20,000 words. "When they are behind from the beginning, they can start to make up ground [in school], but in the majority of low-income children, we never close that gap."

Early learning is important in math, too. Tom Luce, former CEO of the National Math and Science Institute, has said that it's important for all students to complete at least Algebra II by the time they graduate high school. Some students are getting a jump on that: Four percent of eighth graders who took the NAEP test were already enrolled in Algebra II, and slightly more than a third were enrolled in Algebra I, a freshman-level high school course.

Students who were enrolled in Algebra I far outscored their peers on the NAEP math exam, with an average score of 298, just one point below the "proficient" benchmark. Students in Pre-Algebra averaged a score of 276 and students in general eighth-grade math scored an average of 273, solidly above the "basic" benchmark of 262.

[Read about falling achievement on the NAEP civics exam.]

An achievement gap persisted in both subjects: White students in fourth grade outscored black and Hispanic students on the reading exam by an average of 25 and 24 points, respectively. In eighth grade, the gap was 25 points between white and black students and 22 points between white and Hispanic students.

In math, the gap was similar. In fourth grade, white students outscored black students by an average of 25 points and Hispanic students by an average of 20 points. In eighth grade, white students outscored black students by an average of 31 points and Hispanic students by an average of 23 points.

Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told reporters in a conference call that although it's hard to compare achievement across subjects because scoring scales are different for each exam (one math point is earned differently than one reading point), it's obvious that math achievement for students of all races has outpaced reading.

"When we see no significant growth in reading compared to significant growth in math, it is fair to say that we've seen more growth in math compared to reading," he said.

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Corrected on 11/1/11: An earlier version of this post misrepresented the number of students that take the NAEP exam.