Every two years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in each state in mathematics and reading. The “nation’s report card,” as the NAEP report often is called, offers a read on the academic performance of school systems across the country. On the whole, the results of this year’s assessments, released last week, point to modest gains for the nation and for Ohio since the 2011 tests. If the sustained upward trend of the past decade is encouraging, it also raises the question of what more should be done — and how quickly — on both federal and state levels to keep pace with vastly improved schools around the globe.
Nationally, math scores nudged up by one percentage point over 2011 scores in the fourth grade and eighth grade, Hispanic students and girls making gains in both grades. Black students are doing much better overall in fourth-grade math, showing the most gains since 1990 and narrowing the math achievement gap between black and white students. Reading in the eighth grade improved nationally by two points over 2011, but fourth-grade scores showed no significant change.
Encouraging, too, a growing percentage of students nationally are scoring at or above proficient level: 41 percent in math and 34 percent in reading in the fourth grade; and 34 percent in math and 34 percent in reading in the eighth grade. Still, these figures indicate that more than half of students are scoring below the proficient standard in these core subjects, which puts them at a huge disadvantage in advancing to higher grades.
Ohio mirrors the national profile in many ways, the results often mixed, the gains modest. The scores for Ohio’s fourth- and eighth-graders were higher than the national average in both math and reading. Math scores, in particular, have risen markedly. But take a closer look, and the detailed picture is not too reassuring. The pace of improvement in Ohio is sluggish in comparison to high-performing states such as New Jersey.
In both grades and in both subjects, significant percentages of students are performing below proficient levels. Disparities among racial and economic groups still are pronounced. Sixty-two percent of fourth-graders were below proficient in the reading test. White fourth-graders outpaced their black peers by 36 points on average.
To be sure, performance has improved measurably over the decade, curriculum and testing standards revamped. State officials emphasize correctly the importance of building up strong foundational skills such as reading in the early grades. All the more reason that the state must respond aggressively to counter the varied and harmful effects of poverty on academic performance. That includes treating early childhood education and preschools for low-income children less as the stepchild of the educational system.