More test results show math and reading scores the lowest in decades

Average reading and math scores for the nation’s 13 year olds have declined again, with the math decline the largest ever recorded on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ (NAEP) long-term trend assessment (LTT).

Administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the NAEP LTT assessments are age-based, unlike NAEP’s main grade-based assessments, and monitor student performance at nine years old, 13 years old and 17 years old.

Thirteen-year-old students were assessed from October to December of the 2022-23 school year. Compared to scores during the 2019-20 school year, when the assessment was last administered, average math scores dropped nine points and average reading scores dropped four points. In mathematics, scores declined for most student groups, among both girls and boys, across all regions of the country, and across all school locations. Among students attending Catholic schools, math scores were not measurably different. Reading and math scores for the lowest-performing students have regressed to those from the 1970s.

“The mathematics decline for 13 year olds was the single largest decline we have observed in the past half a century,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr in a press release. “The mathematics score for the lowest-performing students has returned to levels last seen in the 1970s, and the reading score for our lowest-performing students was actually lower than it was the very first year these data were collected, in 1971.”

The consecutive downward trajectory in both subject areas has lasted more than a decade, with improvements in math and some improvement in reading noticed prior to 2012. (Common Core was rolled out in 2010, with the vast majority of states adopting the math and reading standards within a matter of months.)

These recent LTT results add to a long-term trend of mediocre and declining academic achievement that existed pre-COVID and that was exacerbated by school closures.

Trend in NAEP long-term trend reading and mathematics average scores for 13-year-old students
Source: NAEP

The majority of the LTT assessment questions are multiple choice, but NAEP notes that most sections include one written-response question. Reading questions focused primarily on comprehension skills (locating specific information in the text provided, making inferences, identifying the main idea in the text); math questions focused on simple multiplication, basic geometry and applying math to daily living skills, such as those involving time and money.

Fewer students “reading for fun”

“Reading for fun is strongly associated with higher achievement,” explained Commissioner Carr in the press release. “Yet fewer students, especially lower-performing students, are reading for fun compared to a decade ago. Aside from its academic effects, reading opens the mind and the heart to new ways of seeing and thinking about the world. Many of our young people will never discover latent passions or areas of interest without reading broadly on their own time.”  

According to NAEP, the percentage of 13 year olds who said they “never or hardly ever” read for fun has increased over the past decade — from 22 percent in 2012 to 31 percent in 2023.

Fewer students taking algebra

Students taking algebra has also declined over the years, continues NAEP — from 34 percent in 2012 saying they were currently taking the course to 24 percent in 2023. Students taking pre-algebra has also declined. “By contrast, the percentage of 13 year olds taking regular mathematics has risen,” increasing from 28 percent in 2012 to 42 percent in 2023. (NAEP did not define what constitutes “regular” math.)

Schools across the country have been spending billions of dollars in federal aid to help students catch up. Watch for my upcoming education report analyzing how districts have been spending these historic sums of money.