Indiana NAEP results show widening gap in reading

Indiana saw some of the nation’s biggest declines in fourth-grade and eighth-grade reading scores when 2019 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released Wednesday.

More worrisome is what appeared to drive the declines: A sharp drop among Indiana’s lowest-scoring students. That mirrors national results, which showed a divide between the highest-scoring and lowest-scoring students that grew larger between the 2017 and 2019 administration of NAEP.

“The most disturbing pattern we see in the 2019 NAEP results is that both fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores decreased most among our lowest performing students,” Indiana University professor Sarah Theule Lubienski said by email. “For example, while reading scores slipped just 1 point for students scoring among the top 10%, they fell 3-6 points among those scoring within the bottom 10%.”

That’s nationwide, and the fall-off among lowest-performing test-takers was even more pronounced in Indiana. Reading scores for the bottom 10% of Indiana eighth-graders fell by 14 points. Reading scores for the bottom 10% of fourth-graders fell by 9 points. Results for highest-scoring test-takers were stable.

Overall, Indiana reading scores declined by 5 points in fourth grade and by 6 points in eighth grade.

Fourth grade reading scores by percentile. Graphs created by Sarah Theule Lubienski using NAEP data tools.

Eighth grade reading scores by percentile.

Indiana math scores fell by 2 points in both the fourth and eighth grades, a much smaller change. In math, there was little difference in trend scores between high-scoring and low-scoring Hoosier students.

Fourth grade math scores by percentile.

Eighth grade math scores by percentile.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is a large-scale testing program administered by the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education. A representative sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in all the states are tested in math and reading every two years.

Nationally, 2019 math scores increased by 1 point in fourth grade and stayed the same in eighth grade. Reading scores fell by 2 points in both grade levels. Only a handful of states saw increases in math or reading, and the results were generally described as stagnant or disappointing.

But it’s hard to know what to make of changes in NAEP results. As Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction said, they are “a snapshot of performance at a single point in time.” Scores reflect not only students’ learning in the testing year but their experience in several previous years of schooling. As hard as pundits and advocates may try, it’s questionable to tie them to specific policies, good or bad.

One thing that could be a factor in Indiana’s decline in reading scores: The state’s 2017 eighth-grade scores may have been artificially inflated, because that cohort of students was the first that experienced grade-level retention as a result of the state’s third-grade reading test. But that would explain the eighth-grade scores only partially, and the drop in fourth-grade scores not at all.

As for the growing divide between high-scoring and low-scoring students, it may reflect a widening gulf between affluent and poor people, in Indiana and across the U.S., Lubienski said.

“Of course, we would like to see scores increase,” she said, “but there has been no concerted, national investment in reading or mathematics instruction — or in public schools more generally — that would prompt us to expect this.  Instead, we have seen growing income inequality, so it is not surprising that we also see growing gaps between the highest and lowest achievers in our schools.”

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