Idaho NAEP scores hold steady, and exceed national averages

Idaho students fared well on the test widely known as “the nation’s report card.”

And Idaho’s scores held steady, with one notable and troubling exception: Eighth-grade reading scores declined significantly.

This decrease falls in line with a larger trend on this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress. But Idaho’s struggles come as Gov. Brad Little and the Legislature are making reading a top education priority — putting $26 million into extra help for kindergartners through third-graders, hoping the investment will pay dividends down the road.

State superintendent Sherri Ybarra hailed the overall results — taking a swipe at other national rankings that have  focused largely on school funding.

“Once again, our students debunked the myth that Idaho education lags near the bottom of state rankings,” Ybarra said in a news release Wednesday. “This is the only assessment that measures what U.S. students know and can do in every state, and Idaho students performed better than the national average in all four tested cohorts.”

Idaho’s report card

Here’s a thumbnail look at the NAEP scores, released Tuesday night:

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Idaho Nation
Reading, fourth grade 223 219
Reading, eighth grade 266 262
Math, fourth grade 242 240
Math, eighth grade 286 281

Now, let’s take a closer look.

What do these differences mean? The differences might appear small, in the context of NAEP’s 500-point grading scale, but they really aren’t. In every area except fourth-grade math, there is a statistically significant difference between the state and national results. In other words, Idaho’s higher scores are probably not just a mere coincidence or oddity.

How does Idaho rank nationally? Across the board, Idaho lands in the top 15 in national rankings. For example — and despite the recent decline — Idaho still ranks No. 10 nationally for eighth-grade reading.

What are the short-term trends? Idaho’s math scores increased slightly from 2017, but these increases are not considered statistically significant. The fourth-grade reading score didn’t change at all, despite the state’s K-3 “literacy initiative,” which launched in 2016. And the eighth-grade reading score did decrease by four points — a statistically significant drop.

What are the long-term trends? Inconclusive. Over the past decade, Idaho’s NAEP scores have neither increased nor decreased significantly.

‘A very meaningful decline’

The eighth-grade reading scores are a big headline from this year’s NAEP data.

Scores dropped significantly in 31 states, including Idaho. Only the District of Columbia posted a significant improvement. (Scores remained virtually unchanged in the remaining 19 states.)

The national dropoff was almost universal. Scores dropped in nearly all ethnic groups. And scores for low-performing students fell the most of all — meaning that the gap between advanced readers and struggling readers is only growing wider.

“That is a very meaningful decline,” said Peggy Carr, associate director of the National Center for Education Statistics, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Education, which administers NAEP.

Idaho scores also fell almost across the board, and across the demographic spectrum. No student group’s scores improved from 2017. Most decreases were small. But some of the decreases were statistically significant — specifically, for boys, for students with disabilities and for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Ybarra said Idaho has “significant room to improve” in terms of serving students with disabilities.

“We know we have a shortage of special education teachers, especially in small rural districts,” she said. “This has a direct impact on student achievement.”

While the national NAEP numbers painted a grim picture, Carr declined to speculate on the underlying causes.

“The ‘why’ is something the data cannot tell you,” she said.

Why NAEP matters

NAEP is administered every two years, and only to a sample of students — this year, about 297,000 students were tested in math, and 294,000 students were tested in reading.

However, NAEP is designed to allow state-by-state comparisons and comparisons over time — hence the “nation’s report card” moniker.

In the big picture, the new national scores continued a trend of stagnation. Reading scores have changed little in 30 years. After two decades of steady growth, math scores have leveled off as well.

“We seem to have hit a plateau since 2009,” said Lesley Muldoon, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, the bipartisan body that sets policy for the NAEP test.

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