Publication Date:

Mar 01, 2015

Trends in Reading Proficiency

29_fig1

Trends in reading scores over the past two decades have varied by grade level.

Among eighth-graders, average reading scores rose in the 1990s, and then remained relatively steady between 1998 and 2002. Average scores decreased between 2002 and 2005 (from 264 to 262), then showed nearly a decade of increases (rising to 268 in 2013). In 2015, average scores had decreased back to their 2011 level of 265. (Figure 1)

Fourth-grade reading scores reached a high of 221 in 2007 after rising steadily since the early 1990s, but have increased only slightly since, and were at 223 in 2015. Meanwhile, reading scores for twelfth-grade students declined between 1998 and 2005, from 290 to 286, but increased slightly in 2009 to 288. Since then, twelfth-grade scores have remained steady.  (Figure 1) According to how achievement levels are scored, the latest data show students at each grade-level performing, on average, at the “basic” level—below “proficient” and “advanced.” (See Definition section for further information.)

Note: In 1996, NAEP began a transition to allowing testing accommodations for students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency. Between 1996 and 2002 two samples (one with, one without accommodations permitted) were used while a new baseline was being established. Beginning in 2002, all NAEP assessments allowed accommodations. Accommodations may include extra time, one-on-one administration, translation of assessments, or the use of bilingual dictionaries and are determined by state and district policies.

Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin*

29_fig2At all grade levels, White and Asian/Pacific Islander students have the highest reading scores, followed by Hispanic and American Indian students. Black students have the lowest reading scores. For example, among eighth-graders in 2015, Asian/Pacific Islanders had the highest average scores (280), followed by whites (274), Hispanics and American Indians (253 and 252, respectively), and blacks (248). Patterns were similar at other grade levels, except that among twelfth-graders in 2013 (the latest data available) white and Asian/Pacific Islander students had similar scores. Among fourth-graders in 2015, there was no significant difference between the scores of American Indians and blacks. (Figure 2)

Among fourth-grade students, the reading gaps between white and black, and white and Hispanic, students narrowed between 2003 and 2007, but have since remained steady. (Appendix 1) Among eighth-grade students, there has been no change in the black-white gap in reading scores, but the Hispanic-white gap decreased between 2003 and 2009. (Appendix 2) For twelfth-grade students, the performance gap between whites and blacks increased between 2005 and 2013, while the gap between whites and Hispanics did not change significantly. (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

29_fig3Girls have higher reading scores, on average, than boys. In 2015, the gap was seven points in the fourth grade, and nine points in eighth grade. Among twelfth-graders in 2013 (the latest data available), girls also had significantly higher reading scores than boys (by nine points). (Figure 3) In fourth and eighth grades, boys’ and girls’ scores have followed similar trends over the past decade. However, twelfth-grade boys’ scores increased between 2002 and 2013, while girls’ scores remained unchanged. (Appendix 1, Appendix 2, and Appendix 3)

Differences by Free/Reduced-Price School Lunch Program Eligibility

At all three grade levels, lower-income students (eligible for free and reduced-price lunches) had lower NAEP reading scores, on average, than students who were not eligible. In 2015, differences were 28 points in the fourth grade, 24 points in the eighth grade, and, in 2013 (the latest data available), 22 points in twelfth grade. (Appendix 1, Appendix 2, and Appendix 3)

Differences by Region

29_fig4In 2015, fourth-graders in the Northeast, on average, had the highest reading scores (228), followed by students in the Midwest (224), South (223), and West (217). Similarly, eighth-graders in the Northeast, on average, had the highest scores (270), followed by those in the Midwest (268), and the South and West (263, each). Among twelfth-graders, those in the Northeast and Midwest had higher average scores (292 and 291, respectively) than those in the West and South (287 and 286, respectively). (Figure 4) None of these average scores were above the “basic” level of achievement. (See Definition section for further information.)

Other 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.
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.

Data and Appendices

Data Source

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress Reading and Mathematics Assessments (NAEP), 2015, 2013, 2011, 2009, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2000, 1996, 1992, and 1990 Reading Assessments. Accessed through the NAEP Data Explorer at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/

Raw Data Source

National Assessment of Educational Progress

http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/

Appendices

Appendix 1 – NAEP Reading Average Scale Scores, Grade 4: Selected Years, 1992-2015

Background

Definition

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 from the Nation’s Report Card website.

Suggested Citation

Child Trends Databank. (2015). Reading proficiency. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=reading-proficiency