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American students’ math scores are down for the first time since 1990

The score decline isn't huge, but it is worrisome.
The score decline isn't huge, but it is worrisome.
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Results from the standardized test known as the Nation's Report Card are out, and the grades aren't good.

Math scores declined for the first time since 1990. Reading scores were flat in fourth grade and declined in eighth grade. Nobody did better than in 2013, the last time the test was administered. No states managed to raise scores across the board.

The drops aren't massive. But they're bad news: For the first time, students' proficiency rates are going backward, representing as much as six years of lost progress in improving education.

While most school reforms haven't produced dramatic results, American students have been doing better on tests consistently, year after year. Even tiny shifts have added up over time to substantial improvement.

The decline this year might be a blip. But the reversal of a two-decade trend of improvement, if that's what happening, is something to worry about.

The Common Core is getting the blame — but maybe too quickly

The biggest shift in education in the past few years has been the switch to the Common Core: new, more difficult expectations for students in math and language arts.

In 2013, when scores went up, Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave the Common Core credit. This year, he's argued the opposite: that some turbulence and a temporary drop in scores is likely while students and teachers adjust to the new standards.

But Common Core opponents also used the scores to argue that the standards aren't working. And other groups used them to push their own education policies: The scores "again show that the strategy of testing and sanctioning, coupled with austerity, does not work," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

The truth is it's hard to determine exactly why scores on the test go up or down — which is why every time the scores come out, groups pushing various education policies can use the National Assessment of Educational Progress to argue that their policy preferences are superior. The scores have risen so steadily and reliably that finding even correlation, let alone causation, can be tough. They're sensitive to changes in demographics: The fourth-graders who took the test in 2015 might be poorer or have more learning disabilities or be different in other ways from the students who took the test in 2013.

While education is mostly a state and local issue, scores were flat or declined across the board in every state this year, regardless of the individual changes those states embraced. Fourth-grade math scores were flat in Kentucky, which embraced the Common Core, for example, but they were also flat in Virginia, which was one of the few states never to adopt it.

There are still big achievement gaps between black and white students

The states that performed best on the test are typical high achievers: Massachusetts had the highest fourth-grade math scores, while Alabama had the lowest. But looking at overall scores masks huge, persistent gaps between black and white students.

Closing those achievement gaps has been a major policy goal of the past 15 years. And this year's NAEP scores show that they did close slightly — but perhaps not for the reasons policymakers hoped, but because white students' scores declined slightly more than scores for students of color. Fourth-grade math scores for black students have been flat for six years.

The 20-year history of NAEP is somewhat hopeful: While education reforms ranging from No Child Left Behind to the Common Core haven't led to immediate, drastic improvements, there has been slow, steady progress. And over time, that progress adds up. Just 13 percent of students tested as proficient in math in 1990; now 40 percent do.

But it also shows just how difficult it can be to make dramatic progress. One reason this year's decline in scores is sobering is that it suggests we might have stopped making progress entirely.