America’s elementary- and middle-schoolers saw their reading scores drop this year on the test known as the “nation’s report card.”

While the 1-point decrease among fourth-grade students is small, the 3-point decline among eighth-graders is substantial, federal officials said. “As much as 31 states are driving it,” said Peggy Carr, who oversees assessments for the National Center for Education Statistics. “That is a very meaningful decline.”

Reading scores dropped for students at all levels, but they fell furthest for students with the lowest scores. Eighth-grade math scores fell slightly too, leaving a small uptick in fourth-grade math scores as the lone nationwide bright spot in the 2019 scores. 

The results extend a decade-long period where average scores in reading and math have remained essentially flat. But that obscures another troubling trend: While the nation’s highest-achieving students are doing better in both subjects than they were 10 years ago, the lowest-performing students have been losing ground. As a result, the score gaps between these groups have been widening. 

That raises questions about whether states are doing enough to help the country’s struggling students. It’s possible that some of these declines are rooted in education spending cuts during the Great Recession, as research elsewhere has shown this negatively impacted student test scores.

The test, formally known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is administered by the federal government to a nationally representative sample of students in every state and many major cities. Nearly 600,000 students took this year’s exams on tablet computers between January and March.

The test is an important marker of how America’s students are doing and how that’s changed over time. It’s also the rare test that has low stakes for students, as it’s not used to determine whether states will intervene in schools, while allowing comparisons across states. 

While the results can’t tell us whether certain policies led to score improvements or declines, it’s often used by school district officials and politicians to tout their approach to education.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, for one, has a speech planned for this afternoon.

In a statement, she called this year’s results “devastating,” drawing attention to both the reading declines and the growing gap between high- and low-achieving students.

“We cannot abide these poor results any longer,” she said. Then she pointed to her own plan to expand school choice policies, saying “it’s the only way to bring about the change our country desperately needs.”

Reading scores have declined

Overall, fourth-graders scored 1 point lower on this year’s reading exam than they did in 2017, a trend that was driven by drops among white and black students. Eighth-grade scores fell by 3 points over that time, a pattern seen across all racial and ethnic groups except Asian and Pacific Islander students, whose scores remained steady. 

One way to understand the size of those drops: For fourth grade, about 30 points separates students considered “proficient” on the reading test and those considered at a “basic” level. For eighth grade, that difference is 38 points.

Carr, the federal official, said there were drops in two kinds of reading skills: reading to gain information, which students do when they’re trying to follow instructions or understand the facts in a newspaper article, and reading for literary experience, which students do when they’re trying to grasp the plot, characters, and themes of novels and plays. In most states, Carr said, it was that second skill that played a bigger role in pushing reading scores down.

The declines prompted the Council of Chief State School Officers to say it would convene a conference of state schools chiefs and literacy experts on the topic. 

“Students nationally are performing better in reading and math today than in the early 1990s, though reading is clearly not increasing at the rate we would hope and this deserves special attention,” executive director Carissa Moffat Miller said in a statement.

How the states (and D.C.) did

For most of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., scores held steady, though more than a dozen states did worse than they did in 2017 in reading at both grade levels.

Two standouts were Washington, D.C. and Mississippi. Mississippi was the only state to see its fourth-grade reading scores improve, catching up to the national average this year. 

Washington, D.C. was the only jurisdiction that saw eighth-grade reading scores jump. Students there moved up 3 points, but still score well below the national average. 

Mississippi and Washington, D.C. were also the only states or jurisdictions to improve in both fourth- and eighth-grade math. 

Carr noted that both places saw improvements across various student groups and for students at both the top and bottom academically, which means whatever is driving those gains is likely “systemic.” 

Mississippi education officials attributed their improvement to several things, including higher academic standards, investments in teacher training, and a six-year-old law aimed at getting students reading at grade level — and holds them back a year if they don’t make enough progress. 

(Research through 2017 found that states that dramatically altered their academic standards by adopting the Common Core didn’t outpace other states on the NAEP exam. And other long-term research has shown that holding middle schoolers back has negative consequences later: it makes them more likely to drop out.)

Test scores are shaped by many factors, both inside and outside of schools. Since states and districts have varying demographics, comparisons should be made with caution. The Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, released its own comparison of state NAEP scores on Wednesday that controls for some differences in demographics, like the share of students who qualify for the federal free lunch program, a proxy for poverty. By this measure, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Florida, and Texas posted particularly strong scores in both math and reading.

A closer look at disparities

The steep drop in this year’s reading scores among students at the bottom is part of a years-long trend. The disparities between the country’s highest- and lowest-performing students are growing starker. 

“The top is going up and the bottom is going down, with the bottom dropping a little faster,” Carr said. “It’s not clear what is happening here, but it is clear it’s consistent.”

Over the last decade, the gap between students scoring in the top 10% on the reading test and the bottom 10% grew by 9 points for elementary students and by 10 points for middle school students. In math, the disparity grew by a similar amount. Carr notes that early in that decade, there wasn’t much movement, but between 2013 and 2015 the scores started to diverge. 

Some score gaps between students of different racial and ethnic groups have shrunk over that period, but others haven’t. Over the last decade, Hispanic students have made strides in both math and reading, their scores inching closer to the scores of their white peers, which have been mostly stagnant. But the divides between white and black students have barely budged in either subject.

You can find more 2019 NAEP coverage from our bureaus here.