Reading Proficiency

Publication Date:

May 02, 2019

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Trends in Reading Proficiency

Trends in reading scores over the past twenty-five years have varied by grade level. Among eighth graders, average scores rose in the 1990s, and then remained relatively steady from 1998 to 2002. Average scores decreased slightly between 2002 and 2005 (from 264 to 262), then had nearly a decade of increases (rising to 268 in 2013). In the past five years, average scores have fluctuated between 265 and 268.

Fourth grade reading scores reached a high of 221 in 2007 after fluctuating since the early 1990s, but they have increased only slightly since, reaching 222 in 2017. Meanwhile, scores for twelfth grade students declined from 1998 to 2005, from 290 to 287. According to achievement levels, the latest data show students at each grade-level performing, on average, at the “basic” level—below “proficient” and “advanced.”


Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin*

Historically, black, Hispanic, and American Indian students have had their access to high-quality educational opportunities seriously restricted. Laws, policies, and practices served to keep their families, for the most part, in conditions of poverty, unable to afford the books and other educational materials and experiences that prepare young children for academic success. Many students of color continue to attend schools that lack many of the resources and experienced teaching and support staff that are typical of schools that serve primarily white students.[1]

At all grade levels, white and Asian/Pacific Islander students achieved the highest reading scores on the most recent NAEP Reading Assessments, followed by Hispanic students. American Indian and black students were more likely to get lower reading scores.

Among fourth graders in 2017, Asian/Pacific Islander students had the highest scores, at 239, followed by white (232) and Hispanic students (209). Black and American Indian fourth graders had the lowest scores, at 206 and 202 respectively. Among eighth graders and twelfth graders, patterns were similar, except that black students had lower scores than American Indian students.

Among fourth graders, the reading gap between white and black students narrowed substantially between 2000 and 2009 (from 34 to 25) but has since remained steady at 26. Similarly, the reading gap between white and Hispanic students narrowed considerably between 2000 and 2009 (from 34 to 25), but that trend had since slowed (this gap declined from 25 in 2011 to 23 in 2017) (Appendix 1). Among eighth grade students, the black-white reading gap narrowed slightly between 2003 and 2017, whereas the Hispanic-white gap narrowed significantly during the same period (Appendix 2). Among twelfth grade students, the gap between whites and blacks slightly grew between 1998 and 2015 (the latest data available), while the gap between white and Hispanic students narrowed slightly (Appendix 3).

* Note that none of the race groups include Hispanics of those races. Special analyses by the NCES of the 12th grade American Indian and Alaska Native data raised concerns about accuracy, so these results are not discussed in this paper.

Differences by Gender

At all three grade levels, girls have higher reading scores, on average, than boys. In 2017, the gap was six points at fourth grade, and ten points at eighth grade. Among twelfth-graders in 2015 (the latest data available), girls also had significantly higher reading scores than boys (by ten points). At all three grades, boys’ and girls’ reading scores have followed similar patterns over the past 15 years. At fourth and eighth grades, the gap has remained steady since 2002, whereas the twelfth-grade gap between boys and girls narrowed (Appendices 1, 2, and 3).

Differences by Eligibility for Free/Reduced-Price School Lunch Program

At all three grade levels, lower-income students (those eligible for free and reduced-price lunches) had lower reading scores, on average, than students from higher-income households. In 2017, differences were 28 points for fourth graders, 24 points for eighth graders, and, in 2015 (the latest data available), 23 points for twelfth graders (Appendices 1, 2, and 3).

Differences by Region

In 2017, fourth graders in the Northeast had the highest average reading score (228), followed by students in the Midwest (223), South (221), and West (219). Similarly, at eighth grade students in the Northeast had the highest average score (271), followed by those in the Midwest (269), and the West and South (265 and 264). Among twelfth-graders in 2015, those in the Midwest and Northeast had higher average scores (292 and 290, respectively) than those in the West and South (287 and 283, respectively). None of these average scores were above the “basic” level of achievement.

Other Estimates

State and Local Estimates

Note: NAEP differs from most state assessments, in that it uses a sampling procedure where only some students are selected to participate, and no student is administered all questions. State-level scores are derived using statistical methods that impute a student’s range of likely scores on the whole test, given their performance on selected items.

International Estimates

  • International estimates of reading literacy for 4th grade students are available from the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessment, which compares the scores of U.S fourth graders to their peers in 44 different countries. Available at:
  • International estimates of reading literacy for 15-year-olds are available from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are available in the Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context report at


Data and Appendices

Data source

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2017, 2015, 2013, 2011, 2009, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2000, 1996, 1994 and 1992 Reading Assessments. Accessed through the NAEP Data Explorer at

Raw Data Source

National Assessment of Educational Progress


Appendix 1. National Reading NAEP Average Scale Scores in Grade 4: Selected Years, 1992-2017

Appendix 2. National Reading NAEP Average Scale Scores in Grade 8: Selected Years, 1992-2017

Appendix 3. National Reading NAEP Average Scale Scores in Grade 12: Selected Years, 1992-2015

Scale Scores range from 0 to 500, with a standard deviation of 100.



Reading proficiency refers to performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Reading Assessments. Scale scores range from 0 to 500, with a standard deviation of 100. In 1996, NAEP started allowing testing accommodations for students with disabilities and for limited English proficient students. Accommodations may include extra time, one-on-one administration, use of magnifying equipment, translation of assessments, or the use of bilingual dictionaries and are determined by state and district policies. Beginning in 2002, all NAEP assessments allow accommodations. Only students currently enrolled in school are assessed.

NAEP also reports scores by achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Cut-off scale scores for these levels, and descriptions of what students are expected to know and do in reading at each level, at fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades, are available at


[1] The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2014). Race for results: Building a path to opportunity for all children. KIDS COUNT Policy Report. Retrieved from

Suggested Citation

Child Trends DataBank. (2019). Reading proficiency. Available at: