Why Math Skills Are Up, But Reading Skills Are Down

The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests are in, and the news is mixed: basically, kids can do math, but if there are word problems they might have difficulty reading them. Why are there larger gains in math and only modest improvement in reading? And are these results reflective of every state in the country?

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National Tests 'Nation's Report Card'

NAEP tests are used by the U.S. Department of Education to assess students' knowledge and abilities in various subjects. The NAEP is given every two years to students in fourth, eighth and 12th grades. The tests are administered in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia.

In addition to math and reading, NAEP also conducts testing in ten other areas, including geography, U.S. history, science, economics and the arts.


'Reason for Concern as Much as Optimism'

Are the NAEP results all bad news? Not necessarily. Generally, it's not that reading has gotten worse, it's that math gains have been more than twice that of reading. And reading is up in most cases, though the increases have been minimal (among eighth-graders, up one percentage point from 2009; among fourth-graders, only five percentage points from 1992 as compared to 27 in math).

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was quoted on MSNBC.com in early November as saying the results were 'reason for concern as much as optimism.' He added that math achievement was up in both fourth and eighth grades and up in reading for eighth-graders, though gains were relatively modest and were far short of the goal of having every child in America proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Why Can Kids Add and Subtract But Not Read?

It all leads to the question: why aren't kids making better progress in reading?

Some say it's due largely to the fact that kids don't read outside of school. When it comes to math, instruction in schools has improved over the past 20 years or so. But reading does not just rely on school instruction, it also includes students reading on their own and parents reading to them or encouraging the practice.

Different Stories Around the Country

In some cases, state tests tell a different story.

Minnesota, for example, showed a nearly two percent increase in reading proficiency, while math scores were down more than eight percent from the previous year (though to be fair, harder math tests were introduced in the state this year). In New York, math scores for fourth-graders fell below the national average for the first time in nearly 20 years. Washington saw both reading and math scores gain slightly from two years ago, while Virginia scored higher than the national average in math.

Overall, though, the results are not all that encouraging for 'the Nation's Report Card'. Proficiency in math and reading remain behind that of several other countries, and lag far behind the goals set by the No Child Left Behind law. Words like 'disappointing' and 'unacceptable' have been used to describe math and reading proficiency levels in American elementary and middle-school students; when it comes to our children's education, those are not words you want to hear.

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