The grim news courses through the latest Nation’s Report Card: Half a century of educational “progress” has yielded no progress at all. The National Center for Education Statistics’ long-term trend assessments for American 13-year-olds in math and reading make for tough reading. The upshot? Reading scores fell to where they started when the tests were first given in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon was president. And math scores were nearly as dismal.
These young teens are at a key moment in their educational careers — they are finishing up the basics and should be preparing for the challenge of high school. Yet they are struggling across all achievement levels and nearly all demographic groups. There is one saving grace. We know how bad things are because the Nation’s Report Card has been keeping track for half a century with consistent testing that provides a solid base line of performance across generations. If we know how bad they are, we know what needs fixing. This is also an indirect but bracing reminder of the importance of accountability in public education — and, by extension, in Florida’s exponential expansion of taxpayer-funded vouchers that begins Saturday.
Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress range from 0 to 500, but the historical averages cluster between 255 and 285. The 2023 average scores for 13-year-olds declined 4 points in reading (which NAEP calls significant) and 9 points in math compared to the previous exam, given just before the pandemic disrupted everything. But COVID-19 can’t take all the blame. Scores were already falling. Compared to a decade ago, the average scores dropped 7 points in reading and 14 points in math.
The results don’t show why today’s young teens are falling back. They simply tell us that they are. So critics should be careful with their claims. If you’re a fan of phonics and want to blame whole language or other approaches to reading for American students’ lackluster performance, your claim may be true, but this Nation’s Report Card won’t make your case. Ditto if you hate “new math” — whatever that is these days.
Some disturbing statistics do offer clues. The assessment asked 13-year-olds about things outside of the classroom such as how often they read for fun on their own or how many days of school they have missed in the past month.
* Only 14% of current 13-year-olds read for fun nearly every day. A decade ago, twice as many did. Were books really better then? Or do smart phones and social media occupy too much time?
* Of current 13-year-olds, 31% almost never read for fun. A decade ago, it was only 22%.
* Just before the pandemic, 84% of students missed no school at all in the previous month, or at most two days. This year, only 75% said the same thing.
* Even more troubling, longer school absences have skyrocketed. Twice as many kids admitted missing five or more days of school in the previous month than kids said they missed just three years ago. Specifically, this year 10% of 13-year-olds admitting missing five or more days of schools in the past month.
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It’s hardly surprising that 13-year-olds who don’t find reading fun or don’t see the need to attend school will fail to thrive. But this is the crisis we’re facing. And it runs deep. This new Nation’s Report Card breaks down reading scores across five groups, from struggling readers to average readers to the best readers. Every group did less well this year than just before the pandemic, and the 2020 group did worse at every reading level than their cohorts in 2012.
The new numbers come from a nationally representative sample of 8,700 13-year-olds who took the long-term trend assessments in both math and reading and answered the personal questions, including the ones about school attendance. The results are not broken down by state, so they don’t show how Florida’s students — whether attending public, private or religious schools or being home-schooled — are faring.
What does this newest Nation’s Report Card have to do with Florida, if this one has no state-by-state results? The report card does one important thing well: It measures students in U.S. schools against each other and across time. This sort of yardstick is exactly what Florida needs as it embarks on a massive experiment in school choice.
Love it or hate it, Florida is amid a revolution in education. Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature have opened up taxpayer-funded vouchers to all comers. Students who opt out of public school can take their share of per-pupil funding — $8,700 or so — with them to pay toward private school tuition and other education expenses. The same sort of assessments modeled by the Nation’s Report Card should be used to have a neutral, rigorous and reliable standard measure of how well students who use vouchers are succeeding — and what should happen to their vouchers when their schools fail them. Otherwise, we will be left relying on anecdotes to make policy decisions and to dole out taxpayer money for vouchers — an estimated $4 billion, says the independent Florida Policy Institute. We should have a system that can tell us whether vouchers work or not.
Facts are sticky things, and we should bond to them like glue. Just like the Nation’s Report Card, we indeed can measure progress — or when students are being left behind. We have argued before, and we’ll say it again: For the sake of our students’ success and to be good stewards of our tax dollars, our elected officials in Tallahassee need to make accountability in vouchers a priority in education.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.