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Kids reading at low levels grew in half of states in 2018

WASHINGTON — Students reading at high levels declined in two-thirds of states in 2018, but reading scores climbed in most of the states, according to the latest assessment released Tuesday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

The latest marks a reversal from the more robust reading score performance of last year, when nearly all states saw improvements on the exam. That trend of gains might have contributed to the overall declines seen in this year’s results, education officials said. The 2018 results came despite generally higher expectations across the board, including expectations for an additional 12 percent of fourth-graders and 21 percent of eighth-graders.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, said the results “are troubling because they suggest that recent gains have come at the expense of too many children.” Edelman said the statistics are “even more troubling” when viewed “on the larger scale” of data throughout the nation showing huge achievement gaps in class achievement between children from different parts of the country.

“It suggests that the gulf in opportunity between urban and rural, poor and affluent and privileged continues to grow,” Edelman said.

The 2018 results, released by the federal Education Department, remain the most comprehensive assessment of student reading ability in the country. Although there have been indicators that students are performing better in reading on a growing number of national exams, there remains a gulf in performance between white students and others in each state.

States test fourth- and eighth-graders on the reading exam — while second-graders take their reading tests when the fourth-graders are in fifth grade.

In 2018, more than two-thirds of the states scored in the “basic” category, suggesting they are performing at or above state standards on the exam. That’s an improvement of 5 percentage points over last year.

States that met and exceeded state standards accounted for just over half of the 400 state ratings. But at least 30 states fell in the low-proficiency categories.

If accurate, that means nearly half of the states are not measuring up to the teaching standards of their states.

According to officials from the National Assessment Governing Board, state teachers’ groups and the administration of Michael D. Leavitt, the administrator of the federal Council of Chief State School Officers, many states are transitioning to curricular approaches that align more closely with the national standards, which Congress passed in 2010 and the Department of Education uses as a key policy tool.

Edelman said it is unclear whether the change in state standards has led to significant gains in reading. Edelman said she believes the greater achievement gaps between white students and minorities should be a stronger indicator of improved achievement.

“If we are going to have a robust and meaningful assessment, we need to see and feel the improvement in inequality,” Edelman said.

The NAEP scores are not adjusted for socioeconomic status, so the results don’t always reflect progress at the local level in the classroom.

The biggest decline on the NAEP was seen in South Dakota, where students’ overall reading scores declined 6.8 percentage points. But South Dakota has the highest poverty rates in the country and was among the states that saw the largest improvements, on average, in the fourth grade and eighth grade.

Other states with dramatic declines on the NAEP included Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia.

In New Jersey, which saw substantial gains on the NAEP last year, reading scores in 2018 went down by an average of 1.2 percentage points. New Jersey education officials attribute that decline to changes in the NAEP scale used in calculating the state’s average score, rather than any underlying decline in student achievement.