NAEP, which is often referred to as the “nation’s report card,” is considered a critical barometer of student achievement because it assesses the performance of children from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in urban, suburban and rural communities. The government first administered the exam in the 1990s, and it tests fourth- and eighth-graders every other year.
Nationally, 36 percent of fourth-graders were considered proficient in reading and 40 percent reached this threshold in math on the 2017 exam, according to data released Tuesday by the National Center for Education Statistics. Thirty-six percent of eighth-graders were considered proficient in reading, and 34 percent in math.
Virginia outperformed the national average, and Maryland stood out in its fourth-grade reading scores but was otherwise on par with outcomes across the country. D.C.’s scores continued to trail those of other urban school districts.
But D.C. education leaders remained optimistic and noted that students in the District have made notable improvements over the past decade and are inching closer to national averages. The NAEP assessment is a 500-point test in each subject; in 2007, for example, fourth-grade students in D.C. traditional public and charter schools scored an average of 197 points on the reading exam. In 2017, their average score was 213 points.
“I’m still feeling very confident in the growth that we have made,” said Amanda Alexander, the interim chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.
In Maryland, performance was steady, with no big swings, which state officials saw as a positive sign following the last testing cycle, when reading and math scores dropped significantly after the state included more students with disabilities and English learners among its test-takers. Maryland had been criticized for excluding too many such students.
For the 2017 test, the state for the first time met federal participation targets in each subject and grade for students with disabilities and those learning English.
“It is important that all of Maryland’s students be counted in any assessment to give us a clear view of how well our schools and students are doing,” Karen Salmon, state superintendent of schools, said in a statement. “Our school systems have met the challenge, and yet this change in the tested population did not dramatically shift outcomes.”
Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said officials were pleased with the scores overall because the state continues to make incremental progress.
“When you look over the long term, you do see significant growth,” he said.
The test results come as the D.C. Public Schools system is mired in scandal. The District posted impressive graduation rates in 2017, but a city-commissioned investigation found that the school system gave diplomas to 1 in 3 students in violation of city policy.
D.C. leaders have repeatedly used the city’s outsize gains in NAEP scores to boast that the District has the fastest-improving urban school system in the country. The growth has slowed, but Alexander said the results show that Washington is the fastest-improving urban district in fourth-grade math. In the District, 32 percent of fourth-graders are considered proficient in math.
The results indicate that the District’s black and low-income children showed greater gains in their test scores than their white and wealthier peers from 2015 to 2017. The improvements were not statistically significant, but black and low-income students made a slight step toward closing the achievement gap in Washington — which has one of the largest gaps in the country.
“As far as the achievement gap, the gap still exists, but there is movement in the right direction, and I’m really proud of that,” Alexander said.
D.C. charter schools — which account for nearly half of the city’s public school students — performed largely on par with the traditional public school system. But fourth-graders in charter schools showed bigger gains on reading than their traditional public school peers. Eighth-graders in charter schools showed a slight dip in reading.
“It’s slow and steady,” said Scott Pearson, the executive director of the charter school board. “We’re pleased with what we’re seeing in fourth grade. The eighth grade is a different story. Middle school is hard, and our schools, as well as the rest of the country, are still learning how best to serve those students.”
Education leaders across the region echoed Pearson and said dramatic gains won’t happen in just two years.
“We should never really expect a big shift in two years on this kind of measurement because kids in schools don’t change a lot quickly,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., vice president of the Maryland State Board of Education. “Still, you’d like to see upward-pointing arrows rather than sideways-pointing arrows.”