Decline in NC’s Reading Scores Calls for an Equity-Based Approach

Fourth grade reading proficiency scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment are out, and certain groups of students are clearly still facing the most barriers to opportunity. Reversing a downhill slide will require taking an equity-based approach to early childhood systems change, as recommended by the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Action Framework. The data suggests that breaking down barriers to opportunity for historically and currently marginalized groups would improve NC’s overall results.

The NAEP is given every two years. Since scores often do not change significantly in that short of a time period, we decided to compare the 2019 scores to the 2015 scores to take a look at the short-term trend. The news isn’t good.

Declines in both average scores and percent of students hitting Basic benchmark

North Carolina’s average score declined by 5 points between 2015 and 2019, a worse drop than in 36 other states (US scores on average dropped two points). During the same time period, Mississippi saw a 5 point increase in the average state score.

We are failing some groups of students – especially Black boys. Analyzing by race and gender, average scores for nearly all groups of students fell over the last four years (Asian students were the exception). But most of the changes were not statistically significant – meaning they didn’t fall enough to be able to say for sure it wasn’t just a fluke in the data. Declines for boys overall and for Black students, however, were statistically significant.

NC also appears to be doing a worse job educating our most struggling students. NAEP scores fall into four achievement levels, including:

  • Below Basic
  • At or Above Basic
  • Proficient
  • Advanced

While the percentage of NC students scoring Proficient or Advanced on the NAEP has stayed about the same since 2015 (36% in 2019, compared to 38% in 2015), the percent that scored below Basic has risen, and the percent that scored above Basic but below Proficient has fallen. This means that while about the same percentage of students are excelling, more students are failing to reach even a minimum level of achievement.

How does NC compare to other states?

The benefit of the NAEP is that it assesses a representative sample of students in every state, allowing us to compare how states are doing. North Carolina, with 36 percent of students scoring Proficient or above on the NAEP, is doing better than nine states, not significantly different from 30 states, and worse than 11 states. So we’re in the middle of the pack.

The Urban Institute analyzes the data with controls for age, race or ethnicity, special education status, economic disadvantage, and English language learner status, recognizing that not all states serve the same populations. Considered that way, North Carolina jumps up to 6th place in the nation. However, that’s also a decline since 2015, when we came in third.

What is NC doing about it?

Reversing this trend will require taking a whole-child, birth-through-age-eight, equity-based approach to education systems change, as recommended by the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Action Framework. Check out our blog post sharing updates on recent actions from the Councils and Commissions that impact the state’s early childhood policy. We are seeing alignment around many of the Pathways Actions across these bodies, including recommendations that would increase equity in early childhood.

Check out this news clip about the great work Read Charlotte — a Campaign for Grade-Level Reading community — is doing to improve reading proficiency!

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. See NCECF’s recent blog on this year’s EOG scores. The NAEP data is not comparable to the EOG data.