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Responding to the Latest NAEP Scores. It’s Not “Doom and Gloom”… It’s “Room to Improve.”

Categories: Curriculum & Access, Early Literacy, Education & Teaching, General, Reading Strategies for K-12, Student Centric Learning, Teacher Best Practices, The Digital Age, Whole Child Literacy

Learning Ally Literacy Leaders, Dr. Terrie Noland and Dr. Molly Ness recently sat down to discuss their thoughts, interpretations, and perspectives in a Literacy Leadership podcast about the latest NAEP Report: What the data represents, and what it calls us to do.  

What Can We Learn From NAEP?

NAEP, The Nation's Report Card 2022 Image The results of the latest Nation's Report Card (NAEP) aren’t as good as we would like, but aren’t “doom and gloom" either. NAEP results provide insight into K-12 education and student achievement. The data is meant to guide us to missed opportunities, and to fresh perspectives.  

The purpose of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card, is to measure the educational achievement and progress of students at established grades and ages in relation to the content of NAEP frameworks. 

NAEP results enable comparisons of what representative students know and can do among states and jurisdictions, among various demographic groups, and over time. The results help us respond accordingly to threats and challenges, such as literacy, low reading ability, and social injustices that impact vulnerable student populations, like those with learning disabilities, and those in BIPOC marginalized communities. (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) 

Data Points for Improvement

Because assessment results are based on samples of students, there are factors to consider when drawing conclusions about NAEP data. In 2022, the average reading score at both fourth and eighth grade decreased by 3 points compared to 2019. At fourth grade, the average reading score was lower than all previous assessment years going back to 2005 and was not significantly different in comparison to 1992. At eighth grade, the average reading score was lower compared to all previous assessment years going back to 1998, and was not significantly different compared to 1992. Now in 2021, fourth and eighth grade reading scores declined for most states and jurisdictions compared to 2019. 

Equity Gap Widens 

First, let us shout out that the data collected for this NAEP Report represents the two-year period during the critical span of the COVID pandemic, and the era of virtual learning. Keeping those facts into perspective, it should tell us something about the state of education and learning during a national crisis.  

Dr. Ness says, “It’s never okay to see our literacy rates falling, but we should be cautious not to use NAEP scores as a weapon against teachers or school leaders. Rather, it is a tool to understand challenges, find solutions, collaborate, change, lead, and resolve. NAEP is like taking the temperature of the ‘state of the nation,’ as a  whole. It is beneficial in its capacity to drill down on aggregated data like grade level, gender, ethnicity, rural and urban, and much more. What we cannot assume is that the overarching national data applies evenly throughout the states -- because states set and measure goals differently. They deliver instruction differently. The big takeaway is that roughly 66% of our nation’s students are not reading well, and this number is growing. A vast majority of these students are in some way marginalized. The equity gap is widening."

Constrained vs. Unconstrained Skills

The NAEP Report reflects what skills children are missing on the proficiency assessments.  The Report specifies 66% of fourth-grade students are not proficient readers, but that does not mean that all 66% are reading below grade level, or that a particular state has 66% of their student population not reading at proficiency. 

Another important distinction is what skills NAEP measures well (constrained skills), and what skills it does not measure well (unconstrained skills). 

Constrained abilities consist of a limited number of items and thus can be mastered within a relatively short time frame. Unconstrained abilities are learned across a lifetime, broad in scope, vary among people, and may influence many cognitive and academic skills.

“We can measure vocabulary at different grade levels,” said Dr. Ness. “And whether a student can decode beginning blends or ending digraphs, but it is much more difficult to assess and measure more complicated skills for reading preparedness. From a research perspective, we know that brain-based learning and the science of reading are the backbone of evidence-based instruction. If we are leaving out components such as teaching background knowledge and introducing text-based vocabulary – the crucial skill of reading comprehension will not be fully realized. If students are lacking in background or contextual knowledge, it could play a critical role in how well they do on NAEP or any other reading assessments. The more funds of knowledge students have will emphatically have an impact on literacy scores measured by NAEP.” 

Temperature Check…Are We Doing All We Can?

Dr. Ness warns that “Blaming and accusation can have the opposite consequences for what we are trying to solve. What we can do is to change our mindset about the latest NAEP Report findings, and look at the data “not” as an enormous discouragement, but as a reflection that we have work still to do to understand and apply all of these necessary components to read successfully:

  • how our brain learns to read; 

  • how well our teachers are prepared to teach reading based on evidence; around the science of reading; 

  • how well our current curriculum aligns with that research;

  • how well we screen for early reading challenges;

  • how well we cover essential reading skills in early education;

  • how well we provide content-rich instruction using text-based vocabulary and background knowledge; and

  • how well we understand and apply Scarborough’s Reading Rope

Extended Learning  Abounds

There are resources to get educated on NAEP, what it measures, sample reading passages, and how skills are scored. 

Researcher Chester Finn Jr. has numerous books and podcasts. Melissa and Lori Love Literacy podcast is well-respected, as are Natalie Wexler’s books on narrowing the academic gap. All of these resources will open our minds to try something new. 

Dr. Ness says, “We want to be mindful of how to address instructional time and find innovative ways to give more of it based on the science of ‘how we learn to read,’ and how we ‘read to learn.’ We’ve got to think about extended school days, summer programs, and effective tutoring. These programs must be continuations of class instruction, and sequential. High-dosage tutoring is not the same as quality tutoring, and we cannot look at tutoring as a “one-off.'' It is important for us to get extended learning right.” 

The results of the latest NAEP scores are not meant to discourage, but to inspire us to action. It is one tool to move us forward, to have a clearer vision of what reading instruction should be, and to lead us to collaborate and work together to prepare all children to be good readers and learners.  


Valerie Chernek writes about educational best practices through the use of technology and the science of reading in support of children and adolescents who struggle with learning differences.   

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