While Washington students post some of the highest scores in the nation, their performance on mathematics and reading tests have remained fairly flat for nearly a decade.

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Since 2009, Washington student scores on a federal achievement test have largely stagnated in mathematics and reading — mirroring a national trend that some have dubbed “education’s lost decade.”

The only bright spot in the Evergreen State: Eighth-grade reading results have shown marked improvement since both 2009 and 2015, according to test scores released this week for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Nearly 600,000 fourth- and eighth-graders across the United States take the NAEP tests — nicknamed “the nation’s report card” — every other year to gauge their achievement in math, reading and writing. Results for 2017 show the only significant change in Washington’s scores was a 5-point gain (NAEP uses a 500-point scale) in eighth-grade reading since the tests were last given in 2015.

But in each grade and subject, fewer than half of Washington students scored at or above the “proficient” level on NAEP, which many consider a high bar.

What do the new results tell us about student progress in Washington? We spoke to state schools chief Chris Reykdal and a University of Washington professor who helps design NAEP to find out.

What the data (and experts) tell us:

Reykdal found some cause for celebration in the 2017 scores: In both grades and subjects, Washington’s scores outperformed the national average and most other states.

“We are a very high-achieving state, we have high standards, and it shows,” Reykdal said.

However, he also acknowledged that the latest NAEP scores indicate Washington schools aren’t making much progress in closing gaps between student groups.

Since 2003, the performance gaps in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math have widened between students who are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals — a common barometer for family income — and non-eligible students. But since 2015, students who identify as Latino or multiracial or who have special needs have improved in eighth-grade reading.

The scores for other historically underserved students remained flat.

“There’s some good news, one glimmer here or there,” Reykdal said. But, “there’s just very little progress on closing the achievement gap.”

He suspected, however, that new money in the state budget for high-poverty schools and students with special needs could help close gaps in future NAEP scores. Washington’s new school-accountability plan also will funnel more money into schools where historically underserved students are struggling.

What the data don’t tell us:

Other than performance levels in each state, NAEP results offer little insight into what’s driving the year-to-year and long-term changes.

“I can tell you the patterns (but) I can’t tell you why,” said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the exam.

NAEP isn’t tied to any specific education policy like new teacher evaluations in some states or the expansion of school choice in others, so test scores are an unreliable way to judge how a particular policy impacts student achievement.

Still, that doesn’t stop many from drawing such conclusions.

“People use these data for different purposes,” wisely or not, said UW professor Sheila Valencia, who serves on a national panel that helps develop NAEP each year.

“They’ll use (NAEP) to argue for school privatization, for vouchers, for or against public schools,” she said. “All of those arguments are stretches, but they still use them.”

Valencia also cautioned against misinterpreting how NAEP uses the term “proficient.”

On many standardized tests, a proficient score suggests a master of skills expected at a given grade level. NAEP, meanwhile, goes above that and defines “proficient” as “an aspiration goal for what all students should know.”

“NAEP has fairly high expectations,” Valencia said. “The passages are complex. They’re long. Half of the items are open-ended … so NAEP has a high-degree of rigor.”

Why this data matters:

Even if the NAEP scores can’t pinpoint a reason for the changes, Reykdal finds them useful to see where Washington’s students stack up against their peers across the nation.

That’s harder to do, he said, with measures like graduation and college-going rates, since every state has different requirements for graduation and college entrance.

“Everything else is a mess,” Reykdal said.

“It’s hard to compare ourselves nationally,” he said. “NAEP is really the only thing we have left to do that.”

For Valencia, she hoped the NAEP data helped parents and educators raise questions with their school districts and state leaders about who’s succeeding in Washington schools and who’s not.

“In terms of the gaps, we’re consistent with the nation, and we have some work to do there,” she said.