New national test scores in math and reading are out, and while averages across Washington have largely flatlined, the gap between the state’s high-flyers and lowest performers continues to grow.
This is particularly true in reading among Washington eighth graders, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released late Tuesday.
Every other year, a subset of the nation’s fourth graders and eighth graders take NAEP, which is administered by the federal Education Department’s research arm. It is commonly referred to as “the nation’s report card,” and includes a pair of math and reading tests. This year, about 600,000 students took the assessment, which is considered the gold standard for measuring students’ academic abilities because there’s no incentive to prepare for it. The test also allows states to compare themselves to national averages.
The new results come amid conversations in Seattle and nationwide about how to educate students at the top of the class — and how to lift up children who struggle to keep pace with their peers. In Seattle, for instance, school officials and community members are debating whether to end a specialized program for gifted and talented students in favor of gifted programs at each neighborhood school. Meanwhile, Seattle school officials have also prioritized educating black boys and teenagers; black students in Seattle test more than three grade levels behind their peers.
Across all students who took the test in Washington, average test scores changed little, or not at all. The only blip was in eighth grade reading, where scores dropped roughly six points to 266 (the assessment is scored on a 500-point scale). This follows national trends, where average eighth grade reading scores fell about four points — the largest drop in more than two decades.
School officials say they’re not sure what’s steering these trends, though differences in socioeconomic status among students may offer some explanation, said Chris Reykdal, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction.
“There’s a lot we don’t know except there’s this very clear, unmistakable trend of serving our students with a lot of resources effectively, and students with not a lot of resources with significant gaps,” he said.
The results surprised some education experts, who say reading scores, more than math, are less liable to change over time. Research suggests that schools play a smaller role in children’s learning in reading than in math, so reading scores tend to stay stable. “You wouldn’t expect to see big national change in a short period,” said Matthew Chingos, vice president for education data and policy at the Urban Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.
Washington was one of 31 states where eighth grade reading scores fell, suggesting the scores may be tied to systematic inequities and a lack of innovation, said Pedro Noguera, professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. He also said he is working as a consultant on a Washington state school equity commission. “Those disparities are again a reflection of inequity broadly,” he said. “Unless you do something to compensate for those disadvantages, they are likely to get worse.”
But what about children at either end of the achievement spectrum? We spoke with policy experts, academics and government officials to make sense of this year’s results.
What the data tells us:
The gap between Washington’s top and low performers is most dramatic in eighth grade.
In eighth grade reading, those with the lowest marks seem to be driving this trend. This year, eighth graders in the bottom 10 percent of test-takers scored 103 points lower, on average, than students who scored in the top 10 percent. This gap is 13 points more than it was two years ago, and represents a steep drop in scores among those at the bottom of their class. High performers scored the same as they did last time around.
In math, the data suggests a different story: that the difference between Washington’s top- and lowest-performing students widens as children age.
For instance, in fourth grade, Washington’s highest performers scored 84 points higher than those with the lowest scores. But by eighth grade, the divide between the two groups grows to 108 points. The same pattern is true nationally: the gap grows from an 81-point to a 102-point difference between fourth and eighth grade.
“That is a huge pattern, and it doesn’t exist for reading,” said Min Sun, associate professor of education policy at the University of Washington College of Education. “This is telling me that the public school system contributes” to the gap in math.
In both subject areas and grade levels, a higher percentage of Asian students reached proficiency benchmarks on the tests than any other racial and ethnic groups. A large achievement gap exists between the state’s white and Asian students, and students who identify as black, Hispanic or American Indian. These gaps remained unchanged from the last round of NAEP testing in 2017.
What the data doesn’t tell us:
Unfortunately, the data doesn’t provide an explanation for why scores are stagnant in some cases and declining in others, said Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for assessment at the National Center for Education Statistics.
At the national level, these trends largely cut across racial and ethnic subgroups, she said. “So we can’t say it’s due to changes and shifts in the population,” she said.
Why the gap in math scores widens between fourth and eighth grade is also unclear, Reykdal said. Reykdal also said he was frustrated to see the state’s reading scores, which hint that efforts launched several years ago to improve literacy, such as enrolling more children in preschool, aren’t having the desired effect. “It’s possible the places getting early literacy support are overrepresented in wealthier communities,” he said.
Others say they expect Washington’s scores may improve in the years to come, given state lawmakers’ recent decision to pour nearly $1 billion into the state’s public school system (nonetheless, some districts have since projected budget shortfalls).
“That would be the expectation, right?” Sun said. “We will see if that sets Washington into another path in the future.”