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What's often called the nation's report card came out today, and it's not good, especially the math section. The National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, tests the country's fourth and eighth graders every two years. For the first time since 1990, both grades saw declines in mathematics, and reading scores weren't much better. The results from cities underscore persistent economic and racial achievement gaps. From the NPR Ed team, Eric Westervelt had more.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Education officials admit they're disappointed and a little surprised. NAEP test scores had been going up slowly but steadily for two-plus decades. But this year, math scores are lower in both grades compared to 2013. In eighth grade math, 22 states show declines. Overall, 67 percent of eighth graders are not considered proficient in math. For fourth graders, it's 60 percent. In reading, scores for eighth graders were also down from 2013. Fourth-grade scores were largely stagnant. USC education professor Morgan Polikoff. Cautions that the drops should be seen in the context of 25 years of rising scores.
MORGAN POLIKOFF: They're a little bit surprising and, I think, certainly troubling and something that folks need to think about, but I don't think that we want to put too much stock in one year's test results given the, you know, tremendous progress that's been made over years.
WESTERVELT: Analysts are already pointing to a range of possible factors behind the dip. They include adoption in more than 40 states of new standards for math and English, the Common Core. In many districts, that's changed what and how math is taught. The biggest drops for fourth graders were on questions about statistics, data analysis and geometry, which are not part of Common Core guidelines for that grade until late in the year.
Others are saying the great recession may have had a big impact on learning, especially for eighth graders. In a conference call with reporters, Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted the changes roiling education nationally. They include demographic shifts, with more schools educating students from low-income families, and increased number of English-language learners and the inclusion of special needs children in these tests in some states. Duncan also said the sweeping curriculum changes in states implementing the Common Core was bound to have an impact on tests and that he expected scores in this period to bounce around some.
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ARNE DUNCAN: This is really hard work, and big change never happened overnight. And as the president recently said, this is a decade-long or longer proposition.
WESTERVELT: Duncan added that anyone who thinks he knows exactly why scores are down is peddling a personal agenda. Some of that is political cover from the soon-departing education secretary who's come under withering criticism from opponents of Common Core. But Morgan Polikoff, who studies assessment and accountability, says Duncan has a point. Researchers need time to drill down into the data.
POLIKOFF: For every bogus claim, there's an equally bogus counterclaim. Unless we get good research on this, you just can't really extrapolate from one year's test score changes to, you know, indictments of whole policies.
WESTERVELT: Polikoff notes that the much more detailed student-level data from these tests will come out in coming months. That's a traditionally rich source for education researchers, he says, but one that will take time to unpack. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
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