Why are reading scores across the country falling?

No matter how it is framed, the most recent scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress paint a troubling picture of reading achievement in the country. Nearly 294,000 students in fourth and eighth grade across the nation took the 2019 reading assessment, and both grades had lower reading score averages than in 2017. And when compared to reading assessment results from 10 years ago, in 2009, the 2019 scores were also lower.

Average reading score trends for eighth-grade public school students broken down by state/jurisdiction reveal 31 states—including Minnesota—had a score decrease between 2017 and 2019. Twenty states—including our neighbors Wisconsin and North Dakota—had no significant change in score, leaving only the District of Columbia with an average reading score increase between 2017 and 2019.

For fourth-grade public school students, average reading scores between 2017 and 2019 had no significant change in score in 34 states/jurisdictions—including Minnesota and Wisconsin and their neighboring states. Seventeen states had a score decrease, leaving Mississippi with the only score increase. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

When broken down by percentile, only the higher-performing students in grade 4 did not experience average reading score declines between 2017 and 2019. This means the lower- and middle-performing students in grade 4 and all grade 8 percentiles (lower-, middle-, and higher-performing students) had lower reading scores between 2017 and 2019. The lowest performing students in either fourth or eighth grade showed no growth in reading scores since the first assessment was given in 1992.

Among racial/ethnic groups, reading average scores of white and black fourth-grade students between 2017 and 2019 were the only scores that decreased. For eighth graders, all reading average scores by race/ethnicity decreased between 2017 and 2019, except among students identifying as Asian/Pacific Islander. Those scores saw no significant change.

What explains the continuation of a decade-long stagnation and decline in student academic performance?

There is no perfect research on the declines, but according to Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, certain data point to things like screen time (which, has significantly increased in recent years among low-income kids) affecting academics and even the recession.

Others in the education space, such as Matthew Ladner, speculated that the teacher strikes over the past year had a negative effect on scores, due to the number of days students weren’t in school learning.

But there is one more possible culprit contributing to the stalled academic progress, according to Jay Greene and Frederick Hess: “a once-bipartisan school-reform community’s hard turn to the left.”

Today, education-reform organizations and the foundations that fund them are overwhelmingly populated by Democrats.

This is a massive change from what the reform community looked like 20 years ago. Back in 2000, for instance, political-campaign contributions by employees at a similar sample of organizations were closer to evenly split between Democratic and Republican candidates. It’s hard to pin down precisely what changed—though it’s fair to say that it’s partly a tale of Republicans walking away from school reform and partly one of an emboldened Left driving Republicans out of the movement by prioritizing identity politics and heavy regulation.

The Center has written extensively about the infiltration of identity politics into our schools and curricula. Striving for academic excellence has been replaced with ideological assault and forcing students to think “correctly” on social issues.

The teachers’ unions have also played a role.

…[S]chool reform has frequently played out over the past decade as an intramural fight among Democrats, with a small band of reform-minded Democrats taking on the teachers unions. In this conflict, the unions have enjoyed massive advantages in manpower and political muscle.

In seeking to win the intramural fight on the left, both union and reform Democrats have taken to one-upping each other by staking out positions farther and farther left on hot-button cultural issues. Indeed, today’s reformers have been engaged in noteworthy efforts to soften school discipline, conscript schools into progressive battles over sexual orientation and gender identity, and enlist schools as outspoken advocates for DACA and critics of ICE.

Helping our kids reach the reading proficiency levels they need to be successful in the 21st century will take meaningful change and a focus on learning the components of reading that matter through consistent teaching methods. But if policies pushing for political priorities to dominate learning environments continue to interfere with effective instruction, falling academic performance may remain all too familiar.