Middle School NAEP Scores Reveal Historic Declines

By July 13, 2023 News

New test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the “nation’s report card,” show historic and worrying declines for middle schoolers. Compared to 2020, students’ average scores dipped 4 points in reading and 9 points in math. Declines are even larger when evaluated against student performance 10 years ago: Reading scores have fallen 7 points; math scores, 14 points.

The findings are part of NAEP’s long-term trend assessment for 13-year-olds, and are based on exams administered to a representative sample of students in both public and private schools. Middle schoolers took the reading and math tests in Fall 2022.

Achievement gaps widen based on gender, race

NAEP findings also show that gender and racial achievement gaps have widened since 2020. In math, for instance, girls’ scores dropped 11 points while boys’ scores fell 7 points. Black students’ scores dropped 13 points and White students’ scores fell 6 points; the Black-White achievement gap now spans a 42-point difference.

Reading for fun is down, as is enrollment in middle school algebra

In addition, according to new NAEP findings, reading for fun is at historic lows. On the 2022 assessment, just 14% of students said they read for fun almost daily. This percentage represents the lowest ebb ever since NAEP began administering the long-term assessments. Compared to avid readers, more than twice as many students–31%–said they “never or hardly ever” read for fun. This is unfortunate for numerous reasons, but also for achievement: Frequent pleasure reading is linked with higher NAEP scores; conversely, infrequent readers are overrepresented in the lowest performance percentiles.

Moreover, middle school students’ enrollment in more rigorous coursework has declined since 2012.  Just 24% of students queried for the 2022 assessment said they were taking algebra, compared to 34% in 2012.

Learning declines that go beyond pandemic losses

Researchers have expressed substantial concern about what the scores represent. Nat Malkus, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote:

… It is clear from the data that these declines are not just lockdown-induced learning losses. Scores dropped substantially between the pre- and post-pandemic LTT [long-term trend] assessments, so it’s clear the pandemic had an effect. However, these declines were already apparent after the 2011–12 high point in both subjects. That suggests the green shoots of academic recovery from the pandemic, which are indeed not yet evident in these results, may not be enough to turn a longer term slide in achievement.

Read more from Nat Malkus here.