Test Scores for US 13-Year-Olds Show Lowest Math and Reading Levels in Decades

As with younger students' recent test results, the math and reading performance of 13-year-olds in the United States has reached its lowest levels in decades, according to test scores released today from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a gold-standard federal exam.

The last time math achievement was this low for a 13 year old was in 1990. In Reading, 2004.

Achievements have dropped significantly since the 2019-2020 school year, when the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the nation's education system. But the downward trend reported today began years before the health crisis, raising questions about a decade of disappointing results for American students.

The federal standardized test, known as the NAEP, was administered last fall, and focuses on basic skills. 13-year-olds scored an average of 256 out of 500 in reading, and 271 out of 500 in math, down from average scores of 260 in reading and 280 in math three years ago.

Performance declines across lines of race, class and geography. But in math, in particular, vulnerable kids — including black, Native American, and low-income students — experienced an even greater decline.

A large number of studies show that the majority of American children are experiencing academic difficulties during the pandemic. It was also clear that low-income students of color were most affected by school closures and distance learning, which in some districts lasted more than a year.

The latest NAEP results are the federal government's latest big data release on learning lost from the pandemic. Scores add to educators' understanding of the challenges that lie ahead for children of different ages and demographic groups.

The 13-year-olds who took this version of the NAEP exam last fall were 10 years old—and in fourth or fifth grade—when the pandemic started. Many are old enough to participate in distance learning without the minute-to-minute adult assistance, as younger children often need.

But ages 10 to 13 are also an important period for mastering basic skills, from multiplication to recognizing the feelings of characters in short narrative passages.

“Bottom line – these results show that there are troubling gaps in the basic skills of these students,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP exam. “This is a large-scale challenge facing the nation.”

In America's highly decentralized education system, the NAEP is one of the few consistent tests administered across states over the years, making results easy to compare.

Test scores do not result in rewards or punishments for students, teachers, or schools, making them very useful for research purposes, as there is less incentive to cheat or teach for tests.

However, some education experts believe that there is too much focus on NAEP. They pointed out that the exam content, in most cases, overlapped little with material actually taught in classrooms across the country.

A student survey given alongside the test yielded another interesting result that educators will be excited about. The percentage of 13-year-olds enrolled in algebra has decreased to 24 percent from 34 percent in 2012. In some districts and states, especially Californianthere has been a push to equate mathematics education with placing fewer eighth graders into advanced mathematics.

The percentage of 13-year-olds who say they read for fun has also decreased. Last fall, 31 percent said they “never or almost never” read for fun, compared with 22 percent in 2012.