Have you seen your child’s reading or math scores lately? Chances are, they’re not so good. But your child isn’t alone. 

The 2019 Nation’s Report Card sounds off an alarm on the declining scores in reading and math among the nation’s 4th and 8th grades in public and private schools. Since 2015, the nationwide proficiency and achievements scores have plateaued or decreased for both grades and in both reading and math proficiency.

US’s Report Card is in a Sorry State

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading assessment, administered every two years to 4th and 8th grades, measures reading comprehension. Students read selected grade-appropriate materials and asked to respond to questions related to their reading. The test scores reflect 600,000+ students in the 4th and 8th grades in public schools nationwide.

Time for parent/teacher meetings

With reading proficiency foundations built from early childhood education, early education programs in the U.S. fall below the average of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. From 2005 to 2017, the average enrollment of 3 to 5-year-olds, across OECD countries, reached 86 percent – but in the U.S. it remained at 66 percent.  Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming dipped below 50 percent while Connecticut, D.C. and New Jersey rose above 70 percent.

The 2019 NAEP average reading scores show 65 percent of 4th graders nationwide not reading at NAEP Proficient levels. The scores dipped among 4th graders across the states nearly by one-third.  Reading scores for 8th graders were lower in more than half of the states when compared to the 2017 scores.

In seventeen states, 4th grade reading scores decreased and increased in only one state (MS). Among 8th graders, there was a significant decrease or drop in 31 states.  There was an increase in reading proficiency only in the District of Columbia. Overall, this year’s average reading scores were lower by 1 point for 4th grades and by 3 points for 8th grades compared to 2017.  However, when compared to the first reading assessment reports of 1992, average scores were relatively higher in both grades. 

Report Card for Males: Even Worse

There is a decline among male students in both public and charter schools.  The low percentages across the socio-economic status included white and black students in public schools across the Northeast, Midwest and southern regions, and among students with disabilities–regardless eligibility for school lunch programs.

“While there is a good progress being made in curriculum frameworks and bringing authentic project-based learning into the classroom, teachers need the time, funds and partnership opportunities with industry, community and municipal stakeholders to help bridge academic content with real-world application,” explains Laura Purutyan, Systems Thinking Program Coordinator for MetroWest STEM Education Network (MSEN) in the Greater Boston area.

Race Matters–States Matter

While the 2017 U.S. Census Bureau reported a 4% increase ($12,201/year) in spending per student in public elementary and secondary education nationwide, proficiency levels in the US continue to lag most of the developing countries.

The 4th grade NAEP reading achievement levels by race and ethnicity shows Asian students scoring highest at 57%, followed by Asian/Pacific Islander at 55%. Falling below the 50% were white students and those of two or more races at 45% followed by Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander at 25%, Hispanics at 23%, American Indian/Alaska Native at 19% and black students at 18%.

Overall, when compared to 2017, the scores among lower-performing students decreased in three of the four grade-subject combinations. These drops rippled into overall drops in national average scores.  

1+1 doesn’t always add up to 2

Average math scores remained steady across states and jurisdictions at both the 4th and 8th grades since 2017. And compared to the 2017 average scores there was a 1-point increase among 4th grades and a 1-point decrease among eighth grades.

The 2019 math scores for 4th graders increased in nine states (OR, NV, DS, AZ, TN, MS, CT, DC, DE) and decreased in three states (WY, WV, VT).  Eighth grade math scores increased across two states (LA, MS) and DC, but decreased in six states (WY, ND, IA, NE, KS, NH).

In math proficiency, this year’s report shows 4th graders at 41% and 8th graders inching up to 34% of NAEP proficient levels. Compared to the 1990 assessment, there was a 6-point gain among 4th graders in Detroit public schools.

As a 20+ year veteran math teacher in Maine public school systems, Sebouh DerSimonian sees low test scores reflective of the “societal, emotional and economic” issues not addressed systemically. Since the 1983 Nation At Risk report (by the National Commission on Excellence in Education) the nation propelled to fix the school system, but he says, “wheels are turning without traction – we are not moving forward.”

“Unfortunately, our society doesn’t value education. Communities don’t offer their best emotional, financial and moral support to their local schools,” DerSimonian related lack of qualified teachers and teacher shortages to this national sentiment which reflects the lack of fair teacher salaries.

Between 2018-2019 teacher strikes in California, Colorado, Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky, N. Carolina and W. Virginia and others demanded higher wages. With average teachers’ wages between $39,000 to $67,000, some school systems negotiated higher wage gains. The economic disparity nationwide reflects on the proficiency levels in the less advantaged communities

“There is also a huge conflict between our federal and state rules and guidelines. While local school boards are proud to be independent, they must follow federal rules to get funding. There is a fractured collective system that doesn’t allow a collective approach of implementation not to mention lack of uniformity,” DerSimonian says.

Experiential Education–Education Leadership

“MSEN’s STEM Learning Ecosystem & Community of Practice systems approach to understanding, planning and investing in a strong educational infrastructure tends to be experiential,” Purutyan explains. “This allows young people to prepare for a future where disciplines come together, where computational literacy is elemental and where math, reading and writing are the common denominators.”

The Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis found a 23% decline in dropout rates when California school districts implemented career pathway programs.

The 2019 World Population Review education ranking by country ranked U.S. in #24 with a 1489 score–500 reading and 487 math scores–inching just above Hungry with a 1487 score. 

China, Finland Report Cards are Lit

At the top of the list, China with a 1731 score–556 in reading, 600 in math-was followed by Hong Kong and Finland. 

While Finland ranks as the world’s most well-developed education by World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive report, the country’s educational supremacy took four decades to achieve. Finland’s educational philosophy ensures students spend more time out of the classroom-with 50-minute recesses. A collaborative education system allows for focused classroom sessions and less homework. There are no standardized tests. All students receive free lunch. Competitive teaching positions mean 1 out of 10 applicants are hired. All teachers must have a master’s degree. Primary education teachers with 15 years’ experience get a $38,000 annual salary.

Some public schools in the U.S. are integrating collaborative and experiential systems to advance student learning. The winners of the 2019 50 Best American Public Elementary Schools, by The Best Schools created environments “highly effective at stimulating learning and fostering personal growth.” These schools are not “solely concerned with academics” but on “variety, innovation, fun, and strong parental and community involvement.”

Efforts are being made but highly motivated teachers, staff and parents involved in the students’ education most definitely and inadvertently can motivate students to higher levels of learning and proficiency.