Why are student test scores down?
While some education experts are concerned that the scores demonstrate the failure of education
policies, others are more alarmed by the persistent gap between white and minority students.
For the first time in more than 25 years, U.S. student test scores
dropped last year in reading and math in a nationwide assessment
— the 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).
Every two years, 600,000 fourth- and eighth-grade students
are tested in reading and mathematics as part of the NAEP,
also known as the Nation’s Report Card. The results show that
eighth-graders dropped two points in math and reading (on a
500-point test scale) from 2013’s results, while fourth-graders
dropped one point in math and stayed the same in reading.
Student proficiency — or mastery of subject matter —
also fell. Only 36 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of
eighth-graders were rated as at or above proficiency in reading,
while in math 40 percent of fourth-graders and 33 percent of
eighth-graders met this mark.
Some say the results support arguments against such
education policies as high-stakes testing. Diane Ravitch, PhD,
education professor at New York University, called the scores
“an embarrassment” that showed the “fiasco” of the No Child
Left Behind and Race to the Top policies of the Bush and
Obama administrations. But others say the drop in test scores
is too small and singular to inspire any large-scale conclusions.
Instead, they say, the NAEP reveals other trends that are more
worrisome, such as the continuing gap between white and
minority student achievement.
“It’s not exceptionally unusual or necessarily a large concern
when you get fluctuations of this size,” says Karen Harris, PhD,
education professor at Arizona State University.
Jonathan Plucker, PhD, education professor at Johns
Hopkins University, agrees but points out that the broader
trend is that scores haven’t significantly increased for several
years — indicating that reforms have accomplished about as
much as they can and have now leveled off.
“Many psychologists predicted if we really focused on
getting these test scores up, we’d see them jump — which we
did,” Plucker says. “And then we’d see them start to top out, and
that’s what we’re probably experiencing now.”
More alarming is that the NAEP tests show a continuing
divide between achievement by white and black and Hispanic
students — generally in the 25-point range. “The achievement
gaps are absolutely massive,” says Plucker.
In eighth-grade mathematics, for example, the
achievement gap between whites and blacks was 32 points
(in 1990, the gap was 33 points). For whites and Hispanics in
eighth-grade mathematics, the gap was 22 points. In 1990, it
In eighth-grade reading, the gap between whites and blacks
stood at 26 points in 2015, compared with a 30-point gap in
1992. The gap between whites and Hispanics stood at 21 points
in 2015, compared with 26 points in 1992.
Among fourth-graders, reading results had a 26-point
differential between whites and blacks and 24 points between
whites and Hispanics, compared with 32- and 27-point gaps in
1992. Math testing for fourth-graders revealed a 24-point gap
between whites and blacks and an 18-point gap between whites
and Hispanics, improved from 32- and 20-point gaps in 1990.
In general, scores are better today than when testing began.
But psychologists and educators are frustrated that any gap
remains despite decades of government attention, programs
and dollars aimed at closing it.
“Achievement gaps are largely driven by socioeconomic
status,” Plucker says, adding that any fix must look at
addressing these factors. “It has to be about living standards
and quality of life. You start changing those and then it’s fair to
expect the scores to keep slowly increasing.”
Harris says in recent years, she has seen more young
children in the schools in which she works who are living in
homeless shelters. Poverty, family stress and instability are
“going to have an impact on national test scores too,” she says.
“We have more families living in poverty than at any time in
our recent history and that’s going to impact the data.”
— Lorna Collier
Achievement gaps continue
Eighth-grade scores show that black
and Hispanic students continue to do
worse than white students.
32 points between blacks and whites
22 points between Hispanics and whites
26 points between blacks and whites
21 points between Hispanics and whites
Source: 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress