The state’s eighth graders did worse on national tests of math and reading than they did two years ago, making North Carolina one of three states with statistically significant declines in both subject areas.
But fourth grade reading scores in the state improved 4 points from two years ago on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, while fourth grade math scores showed no significant change on results being released Wednesday.
NAEP, often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, includes tests of fourth and eighth graders every two years. NAEP is not a test of all students. A representative sample of students is selected to answer test questions.
Nationally, scores for public-school students on the eighth grade math and reading tests declined two points. Scores dropped one point on 4th grade math and were unchanged in fourth grade reading.
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In North Carolina, fourth grade scores were higher than national averages in both reading and math. North Carolina eighth graders were at the national average in math and were three points below the average in reading.
The state’s eighth grade reading score showed a 4-point decline from 2013. Information about eighth grade math in the NAEP reports was conflicting, showing either a 4-point or a 5-point drop.
The new national and state results could be used by critics of the Common Core standards.
National and state education officials pushed back against any suggestion that the lower scores are connected to Common Core standards, which are the new math and English language arts education goals adopted by most states.
William Bushaw, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, tried to discourage connecting this year’s test results and Common Core in a telephone call with reporters Tuesday.
NAEP exams, while overlapping with the Common Core standards, are not tied to any specific curriculum or material used in public schools, Bushaw said.
He added that states might not have used Common Core in the same way.
“We should not assume the Common Core has been evenly or persistently implemented in the country,” he said.
While warning against attributing the decline to any single factor, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said states should stay the course in holding students to high standards.
“Change of this scale is a long-term effort,” he said. “Progress will never be quick or linear.”
Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center For Education Statistics, cautioned against reading too much into results from one year.
“One downturn does not a trend make,” she said.
“We realize it’s a pattern consistent across the states. We’d like to see multiple years or multiple occurrences before we express a concern.”
Information and data was provided to news organizations in advance under an embargo that also placed limits on sources who could be interviewed about the data ahead of Wednesday’s release.
North Carolina is in its fourth year using Common Core, but the standards remain controversial. A state commission examining the standards is preparing to make recommendations for changes by the end of the year.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said there could be multiple reasons for the eighth grade declines, including lack of resources for getting extra help to middle grade students and lack of math textbooks.
The new Read to Achieve law, which requires that most third graders read well before being promoted, may be a factor in the fourth grade reading test improvement, Atkinson said.
“We know that children all across North Carolina can learn to read well,” she said. “Read to Achieve has allowed us to give extra support to those who may need extra help.”