NC Holds Steady on Reading Scores

About the same percentage of NC fourth graders are reading proficiently as two years ago – 39 percent in 2017 vs. 38 percent in 2015 – according to data released last week from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Most student subgroups scored about the same as in 2015 as well, with one notable exception:

  • The percentage of economically disadvantaged students that scored “below basic” on the NAEP increased by a statistically significant amount compared to 2017. That means that more of our poorest students are failing to hit even the lowest reading benchmark.

The scores of most student subgroups also were not significantly different from this year’s national averages, with a couple exceptions:

  • The percentage of NC white fourth-graders who scored proficient or higher on the assessment was significantly higher than the national average for white fourth-graders.
  • The percentages of NC English-Language Learner fourth-graders who scored at the “basic” level or higher, AND at the “proficient” level or higher were significantly lower than the national averages for English-Language Learner fourth-graders.

Considered together, these results are sobering. They suggest that we are continuing to fail our most vulnerable students – those from economically-disadvantaged families and English-Language Learners among them – while the achievement gaps between white and other groups of students continue to grow.

While about half of white and Asian NC fourth-graders are proficient in reading, only about one in five black and Hispanic NC fourth-graders are. Similarly, about half of NC non-economically disadvantaged students scored in the proficient range, while only about one in four NC students from poor families did.

The research is clear that third grade reading proficiency is impacted by a wide range of factors, including children’s health and development, beginning at birth; supported and supportive families and communities; and high quality birth through age eight care and education environments. Because the factors that influence early literacy are so multiple and varied, so are the interventions to improve it. Research suggests that there is no silver bullet, but instead a portfolio of investments works best to improve children’s outcomes.

The NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Initiative holds up reading proficiency at the end of third grade as a proxy for child well-being. The initiative is creating partnerships among the state’s early learning and education, public agency, policy, philanthropic and business leaders to define a common vision, shared measures of success and coordinated strategies that support children’s optimal development beginning at birth. The Pathways vision is that all North Carolina children, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, are reading on grade-level by the end of third grade, and all children with disabilities achieve expressive and receptive communication skills commensurate with their developmental ages, so that they have the greatest opportunity for life success.

About the NAEP:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is a national assessment of students at different ages and in different subjects. Data is reported every two years, and North Carolina looks at the NAEP fourth grade reading assessment scores to determine how NC students are doing in reading proficiency over time, and compared to the national average. Since the NAEP is a sample of fourth graders, rather than assessing every fourth-grader in the state, NAEP data is not available at the school district or county level. To compare reading scores across counties, we recommend looking to North Carolina’s third grade reading end of grade (EOG) assessment data. The NAEP data is not comparable to the EOG data.

2017 NAEP Data Details:

In the data released last week, about the same percentages of NC fourth-graders overall, and various sub-groups of fourth-graders, were proficient in reading as were proficient in 2015, the last data release. Though some groups went up or down a point or two, the changes were mostly not statistically significant – meaning that the changes were small enough that they could have been caused by random chance rather than more or fewer children actually reading on grade-level.

Here are some more specifics on this year’s NAEP data for our fellow data geeks out there.

The following table lays out the percentages of NC fourth-graders overall and for subgroups of fourth-graders who were “proficient” in reading on the 2015 and 2017 NAEPs. The table also provides the 2017 national averages for comparison. The differences that are statistically significant are shaded.


2015 – NC2017 – NC2017 – US
All fourth-graders38%39%37%
By race/ethnicity
American Indian/Alaska Native19%20%
Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander27%
Two or more races47%41%42%
By eligibility for free- and reduced-price lunch
Eligible (economically disadvantaged)25%24%22%
Not eligible (not economically disadvantaged)59%53%52%
By gender
By English Language Learner (ELL) Status
Not ELL41%40%40%
By Disability Status
Identified as students with disabilities, including those with 504 plans9%11%12%
Identified as students with disabilities, excluding those with 504 plans8%9%11%


‡ Reporting standards not met (sample size too small to report accurate percentages)