By on 12.14.22 in Education

Results from the National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP), known also as the Nation’s Report Card, have been getting a lot of attention over the past month. The US Secretary of Education has called the results “unacceptable.” North Carolina’s Superintendent, Catherine Truitt, said the results were unsurprising, given the COVID-19 impact on K-12 learning in the state.

What did the results show? National 2022 test scores showed an average decline of 5 points in reading and 7 points in math for 9-year-old students compared to 2019. This is the largest decline in reading scores since 1990 and the first ever decline in math scores. North Carolina mirrored the country with declining scores for fourth grade math and reading. Results, however, show that some vulnerable fourth grade groups in North Carolina had substantial decreases larger than the national trend.

There are four performance levels assessed by the exam – below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. Below or at basic level is considered a partial mastery of NAEP standards, a level of proficient represents solid academic performance in relation to the standards, and advanced represents superior performance beyond NAEP standards. The purpose of this blog is to examine how vulnerable groups fared in North Carolina compared to nationally by comparing trends in the percentage scoring below the proficient level (below or at the basic level) on the NAEP fourth grade math and reading exams.

NC Fourth Grade Math Scores

By free or reduced lunch eligibility

Fewer fourth graders who receive free or reduced lunch hit math benchmarks. The percentage of US fourth graders eligible for school lunch scoring proficient or above decreased in 2022 (20%) from 2019 (26%). An even smaller percentage of NC students eligible for school lunch scored proficient or above in 2022 (14%) versus in 2019 (26%) – a much larger decrease than the US result.

By Race/Ethnicity

Nationally, Hispanic students with scores at proficient or above decreased 6 percentage points from 2019 to 2022, whereas the percentage of Hispanic students in NC with scores at proficient or above decreased by 13 percentage points – more than double the US result.

Similar but less dramatic differences exist for for White and Black North Carolina fourth graders who scored proficient or above in math compared to nationally. Declines in North Carolina fourth grade test scores were greater than those nationally for White students (7% decrease vs 4% nationally) and Black students (5% decrease vs 6% nationally).

Some of the largest disparities in math scores across years occurred between US and NC Black, Hispanic, and White fourth graders who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. These fourth graders in NC were less likely to score at or above proficient than their peers nationally.

Hispanic and White fourth graders in North Carolina had an 11-percentage point difference with their national peers. Black fourth graders had a 4-percentage point difference. These dramatic decreases at the state level indicate large cohort differences across years, as well as opportunities for targeted interventions.

NC Fourth Grade Reading Scores

By free or reduced lunch eligibility

Fourth-graders eligible for the school lunch program had scores that differed significantly from 2019 to 2022. Among those eligible for school lunch, a smaller percentage of US fourth graders scored at proficient or above in reading in 2022 (20%) than in 2019 (22%) – a 2% decline. The decrease was even greater for NC students, where 21% of eligible NC students scored at proficient or above in 2019, and 16% scored below proficient in 2022 - a decrease of 5%.

By Race/Ethnicity

Percentages of fourth graders from different racial/ethnic groups who scored at or above proficient had relatively small decreases from 2019 to 2022. White students decreased by 4-percentage points nationally (54 to 58%), whereas in NC, white students decreased by 5 percentage points (45 to 41%). Black students decreased by 1 point nationally from 2019 to 2022 (28 to 17%), and 2-percentage points in NC (20 to 18%). Hispanic students increased by 2 points both nationally and in NC from 2019 to 2022 (both 77 to 79%).

Reading scores among Hispanic, Black, and White fourth graders eligible for free or reduced lunch had only small decreases (and one increase) in the percent scoring at least at the proficient level from 2019 to 2022. White students decreased by 2 percentage points nationally, whereas in NC, white students decreased by 7 percentage points. Black students declined 1 point nationally from 2019 to 2022, and 4 percentage points in NC. Hispanic students, however, decreased by 3 points nationally, while in NC, the number scoring proficient or above increased 2 points from 2019 to 2022.

Why are differences in fourth-grade math and reading scores important?

The results presented in this blog show that overall, fourth grade students in the state experienced greater decreases in proficiency in reading and math than the US overall. Thus, more students belonging to certain groups within the state have not achieved proficiency or mastery on core subject areas than their prior cohort.

Declines in scores have been attributed to the disruption in learning caused by COVID. In March of 2022, the NC Department of Public Instruction released the “Understanding the COVID-19 Learning Loss Impact Analysis.” Report authors made several recommendations to reduce the impact on documented learning loss.

Three of these recommendations targeted students broadly – ensure students have access to in-person instruction, increase students’ accessibility to use reliable broadband internet at home, and focus on content areas of highest need, including middle grade math and early grade reading.

The final recommendation, however, is that education leaders and teachers should focus resources and targeted interventions on students who have been most negatively impacted. This blog highlights groups of NC students who experienced the largest impacts from COVID learning loss and thus have the highest need for intervention.

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