Idaho students hit 10-year low on national exam — but still fared better than most

“Appalling” test scores. Declining math and reading proficiency. An alarming number of kids who are falling behind. 

It’s the story the latest National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores are telling – confirming what many suspected would be the pandemic’s troubling, pervasive impact on learning.

Idaho students did better on what’s called The Nation’s Report Card than did many others across the country, performing above the national average in all aspects of the test except for fourth-grade reading.  

But before celebrations ensue, a reality check: all of Idaho’s scores were lower than they’ve been in more than a decade.

And when paired with recently-released ISAT scores, the numbers show that Idaho kids are especially struggling with math. While they may not be as behind as other students, they still have a lot of catching up to do. 

The State Department of Education characterized the NAEP results as “encouraging news” in a press release on Monday. 

“We knew the pandemic would take a toll on student performance, especially for our youngest students,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said. “But because of our teachers’ tremendous efforts and because Idaho returned to in-person learning more quickly than most other states, we maintained solid footing and, in some cases, improved our standing nationwide.”

Ybarra will be replaced next year following her Republican primary election loss to Debbie Critchfield, who will take on Democrat Terry Gilbert in the November General Election for the privilege to lead Idaho’s K-12 public schools.

State Board President Kurt Liebich also reacted on Monday to Idaho’s NAEP results.

“Our students have a long way to go – approximately two-thirds are not proficient and that is a big concern,” Liebich said.  “We made it through the pandemic, and now our entire system needs to focus on bringing those students who fell behind back to where they should be in these important core subjects.”

NAEP is considered the gold standard of large-scale assessments and has been a common measure of student achievement since 1969. In 2022, approximately 450,000 students from more than 10,000 schools across the country participated in the assessment. In Idaho, about 7,000 students took the exam. 

These are the first results since the start of the pandemic. 

Idaho’s historically-low math scores are above national averages

Nationwide, eighth-grade math scores fell in nearly every state.

Idaho was no different. In 2019, only 37% of students tested were proficient or above in eighth-grade math. This year, that number dropped to 32% – Idaho’s poorest showing since 2005.

Fourth-grade math proficiency fell even further – from 43% in 2019 to 36% in 2022. This year’s fourth grade proficiency score was lower than it’s been since 2007. 

Test year % proficient or above in 8th-grade math % proficient or above in 4th-grade math
2022 32 36
2019 37 43
2017 35 40
2015 34 38
2013 36 40
2011 37 39
2009 38 41
2007 40 34
2005 30 40
2003 28 30


Yet, Idaho students scored better than most across the country in math. Eighth-graders had the sixth-highest average math score in the nation (a tally that also included Department of Defense schools; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico). 

And fourth graders were ranked 24th, just ahead of the national average. 

To take a closer look at Idaho’s national math standing among eighth graders, go here. For the same among fourth graders, go here

The recently-released 2022 ISAT results showed improved math and ELA scores from nearly across-the-board drops in 2021, but those scores are still far from reaching the state’s standardized testing goals. On top of that, most Idaho sophomores have failed to achieve proficiency in math for years. 

Idaho’s reading scores have dropped significantly, but eighth graders are ahead of national average

Reading scores declined in most states, including Idaho. 

Eighth graders fell from 37% scoring proficient or above on the reading test, to just 32% in 2022 – Idaho’s lowest level since 2007. Fourth graders’ drop was just the same – from 37% in 2019 to 32% in 2022 – their lowest since 2009. 

Test year % proficient or above in 8th-grade reading % proficient or above in 4th-grade reading
2022 32 32
2019 37 37
2017 39 38
2015 37 36
2013 37 33
2011 34 33
2009 33 32
2007 32 35
2005 32 33
2003 32 30


Even with historically low scores, eighth graders were ahead of the national average and were ranked 11th overall. Fourth graders, however, fell into 28th place and were below the national average. 

Reacting to the fourth grade results, Ybarra said “our focus on early literacy is more important now than ever as we address pandemic learning loss.”

To take a closer look at Idaho’s national reading standing among eighth graders, click here. For the same among fourth graders, go here

Students with disabilities show a notable performance gap

The achievement gap between students with disabilities and other students is a concern, Ybarra said, adding that it is exacerbated “by the pandemic and an acute shortage of special education teachers, especially in small rural districts.”

On the ISAT, only 15% of students with disabilities earned ELA proficiency compared with the state average of 55% proficiency; and only 12% earned math proficiency as compared with the state average of 42% proficiency. In each case, only those with limited English proficiency performed worse.

To further explore achievement gaps on the NAEP, go here.

NAEP results should be considered in context

When reacting to the results, the SDE called attention to NAEP’s rigor. 

Paul Kleinert, the Idaho NAEP Coordinator, said a proficient rating on state assessments generally equates with performing at grade level, but NAEP’s proficient score is above grade level, according to a SDE press release. 

In Idaho, most students performed above the lowest category – below basic. 

NAEP defines basic as “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills,”; proficient” as “solid academic performance,”; and advanced as “superior academic performance.”

It’s also worth noting that only a few thousand Idaho students take the test each year – as compared to the more than 169,000 who took the ISAT. 

Data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report. 

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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