Reading scores drop among U.S. high school seniors

National test results for 12th grade student achievement were released last week, showing concerning academic performance in reading and math among high school seniors who graduated in spring 2019.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 37 percent of 12th graders met or exceeded the academic preparedness benchmark for college in reading. The 2019 average reading score dropped two points, compared to the last reading assessment in 2015, and was concentrated among lower-performing 12th graders. Scores also decreased among lower-performing students attending public schools.

This resembles the declines in fourth- and eighth-graders’ reading scores that were released last fall.

In mathematics, only 24 percent of high school seniors performed at or above the benchmark for college readiness. While the average math score is stagnant compared to 2015, scores decreased among lower-performing students. Lower-performing public school students also scored lower in 2019 compared to the previous 2015 assessment.

When broken down by race/ethnicity, there were no statistically significant changes between the 2015 mathematics and reading scores and the 2019 scores.

Interestingly, more lower-performing 12th grade students reported taking more advanced mathematics and advanced reading courses compared to 2015. According to Lynn Woodworth, the commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that administers NAEP assessments, “this shift toward more rigorous coursetaking has not corresponded with an increase in scores, as one might expect.”

“Instead, this shift toward more rigorous coursetaking runs parallel to a decline in scores for lower-performing twelfth-graders. We need a closer examination of the relationship between coursetaking and achievement.”

As one potential explanation, Woodworth cited a past NCES study of high school math courses that showed that course titles can be misleading, and what students actually cover in the classroom may not be as rigorous as advertised.

The 2019 reading and math assessments were administered digitally for the first time to 52,100 12th graders in public and private schools across the country between January and March 2019.

As I detail out here, Minnesota has struggled to make meaningful academic progress on NAEP assessments, and despite rising graduation rates, too many 12th graders are exiting high school unprepared for college and other post-secondary options.

According to experts and a growing body of research, a scientifically-based literacy program is the most effective way to improve literacy and reduce the achievement gap. The reading proficiency challenges we see among our 12th graders were evident when they were 8th graders, and even 4th graders.

Helping our kids reach the reading proficiency levels they need to be successful will take meaningful change and a focus on learning the components of reading that matter through consistent teaching methods. But if education “policies” pushing for political priorities continue to dominate learning environments and interfere with effective instruction, falling academic performance may remain all too familiar.