National Assessment Scores Say NC Must Help Young Readers

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Community Supports for Learning Loss Recovery are Essential

As many suspected might be the case, North Carolina’s fourth graders need more support to be better readers, since pandemic learning losses have impacted communities. This was demonstrated in the “Nation’s Report Card” for 2019-2022, which says students across America saw a decrease in their reading and math scores decline during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what students in public and private schools in the United States know and are able to do in various subjects. The assessment is conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics to measure math and reading performance of a representative sample of students in the fourth and eighth grades in each state and the jurisdictions of the District of Columbia, U.S. Department of Defense schools and Puerto Rico (math only). It is typically administered every two years, but was delayed from 2021 to winter 2022 because of the pandemic.

We’re used to seeing state test scores released annually through the End of Grade (EOG) assessments, but NAEP scores are different and more rigorous. NCECF Board Member Dr. Munro Richardson provided clarity interpreting them. 

“Unlike the state EOG scores, the NAEP is a statistically representative sample of students across the US, each state and select urban districts, like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Guilford County Schools,” said Richardson. “Just like a presidential poll, there is a ‘margin of error’ we have to account for when evaluating results from a sample of students. By contrast, the NC EOG assesses all eligible students in the State. So, when we compare NAEP results for 2019 and 2022 we must take this margin of error into account to understand if there was a statistically significant difference or not.” 

In this article, we highlight fourth grade reading, since the NC Early Childhood Foundation  (NCECF) emphasizes reading well in the early grade as a predictor of a child’s academic and career success.

How Did North Carolina Fourth Graders Fare?

North Carolina’s Grade 4 reading score decreases were comparable to those across the country. You can view the full North Carolina profile online here, which includes the snapshot report for Grade 4 Reading (2022) results. Let’s take a look at report card specifics to see which readers need the most support.

8 states had a larger decrease than the nation
Screenshot from NAEP Day Webcast

NC Grade 4 Average Reading Scores

For Grade 4 reading, scores are assessed as basic, proficient and advanced, with more detailed achievement-level descriptions found online

  • 208 = Basic
  • 238 = Proficient
  • 268 = Advanced

Here are the specifics from the NC snapshot:

  • In 2022, the average score of fourth-grade students in North Carolina was 216 out of 500. This was not significantly different from the average score of 216 for public school students in the nation
  • The average score for students in NC in 2022 (216) was lower than their average score in 2019 (221) but was not significantly different from their average score in 1998 (213)
  • The percentage of students in NC who performed at or above the NAEP Proficient level was 32 percent in 2022. This percentage was not significantly different from that in 2019 (36 percent) and was greater than that in 1998 (27 percent).
  • The percentage of students in NC who performed at or above the NAEP Basic level was 61 percent in 2022. This percentage was smaller than that in 2019 (67 percent) but was not significantly different from that in 1998 (58 percent).

Demographics in NC (2020-21) & Scoring Differences

Data indicates that the kids who were struggling with reading before the pandemic are often in more of a crisis since the pandemic began. When comparing fourth grade students by race/ethnicity, white NC students averaged Basic and Black NC students averaged Below Basic.

A chart of data from the NC Grade 4 Reading NAEP Snapshot

The opportunity gap remains for children with disparate access to everyday basic needs like food and nutrition. Those eligible for free and reduced school lunch, or lower income families, also scored lower at 200, than those not eligible, who averaged 225. 

The fourth grade population sampled also includes:

  • 15.58 percent who identified as students with disabilities and 
  • 12.21 percent who identified as English learners.

NC Student Success in Context

Many factors may influence average student achievement, including local educational policies and practices, quality of teachers, and available resources. Such factors may change over time and vary among student groups. 

North Carolina’s NAEP results were consistent with the nation as a whole. State average fourth grade reading score declined five points from 2019 to 216, the same average score for the nation, which fell three points. When looking at other Southern states, surrounding states’ fourth grade reading scores were not significantly different from NC. The average fourth grade reading scale score in Virginia was 214, in Tennessee was 214, in Georgia was 216, and in South Carolina was 216. 

In an era of virtual learning, during the pandemic, not all digital and learning access was equitable, nor was the extra support and a space at home always conducive to more successful learning. 

Seventy percent of 9-year-old students nationwide recalled learning remotely during the last school year, while 19 percent reported they did not learn remotely, and 11 percent did not remember. Of the 70 percent of 9-year-olds who learned remotely nationwide during the 2020–21 school year, higher performers (those at or above the 75th percentile) had greater access to a desktop computer, laptop, or tablet all the time; a quiet place to work available some of the time; and a teacher available to help them with mathematics or reading school work every day or almost every day compared to lower performers (those below the 25th percentile).

Tactics for Community & Education Support in NC

Tutoring and community partnerships are important to leverage. How do we make this equitable across the state? That’s where the NC Education Corps can help, by providing high dosage tutoring services with trained, paid volunteers. Community groups, educators, and schools must work to support the parents to get their children back on track. Everyone was doing the best they could during a difficult time. 

“I’m worried that the need is outstripping the tutoring that can be provided. There will not be enough infrastructure to meet the need,” Richardson, who leads Read Charlotte, a community children’s reading initiative said. “We’ve got to get more people engaged to help our children get back on track. How do we help families and community groups be part of the solution? Boys and Girls Clubs, churches, YMCA’s, and more must come together. We cannot put all this burden on our school systems or parents, alone, because they can’t do it on their own. They need help.”

“We have a twin challenge,” Richardson said. “How do we help the kids who were already in the school system when COVID hit to recover and help the kids who are coming into the K-12 system? It’s a really stressful and challenging time for schools. More than ever, we need our big System, with a capital S, across the state to come together, paying attention to the different challenges, but also the common challenges facing the districts.”

Right now, we must focus on recovery, with what’s going on with students, teachers, schools, and our communities, as a whole. As of September 30, about 45% of COVID relief funds for schools were yet to be spent. These funds can be used across NC districts, and there is still the unfolding fate of the Leandro case

We’re still emerging, as a result of this pandemic. And it’s not over yet. The impact is certainly not over. We’re going to continue assessing where and how our education ecosystems are doing. Where are folks thriving and where are they struggling? What disruptions are going on and how can those areas be supported?

Moving Forward: NCECF Looks to Transformative Change

As the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, we’re looking for transformational changes within our system to ensure a vision that each NC child has a strong foundation for life-long health, education, and well-being supported by a comprehensive, equitable birth-to-eight ecosystem. 

To do that, we need to know where we are. That’s what these scores help us better understand. 

NCECF is specifically focused on marshaling North Carolina’s great people, ideas, and achievements to ensure equitable access to opportunity and success for every child by the end of third grade. Two of our initiatives prioritize early childhood reading success: the NC Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and Pathways to Grade-Level Reading. 

The national Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (CGLR) has mobilized 300 communities across the country to ensure that more children from low-income families succeed in school and graduate prepared for college, a career and active citizenship. It is a collaborative effort by foundations, non-profit organizations, business leaders and government agencies supporting children’s school readiness, summer learning and regular school attendance. 

North Carolina’s Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has a vision where diverse and inclusive communities grow thriving readers, beginning at birth and continuing through third grade, so each child is prepared for success. Since becoming the state lead for the CGLR in 2015, we have increased the number of communities from three to 13. 

Campaign communities have reported our Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Measures of Success as essential to their strategic planning, onboarding of coalition members and recognition of the need to deliberately address racial equity. Local communities across the state are using the Measures of Success Framework for collaborative community planning—identifying which of the Pathways shared measures to focus on locally and developing strategies for action to improve child and family outcomes.

Driving the Pathways initiative is the foundational belief that together we can realize greater outcomes for young children than any of us can produce on our own. Reversing the downward 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

Our state, local and community leaders know what works, but not all school districts have been supported equitably. Maybe it’s time that we marshal time, attention, and resources in a better way to keep offering reading and wrap-around support to our children, families, and educators.