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The percentage of all fourth-graders reading Below Basic on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test of student achievement. This is a mere one point decrease from 2013, but a five point decrease from 2002.

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The percentage of fourth graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels on NAEP 2015. This is just a one point increase over 2013, but a five percent increase over 2002.

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The percentage of all eighth-graders reading Below Basic on NAEP 2015. This is a two point increase over 2013, but still a one point decline over 2002.

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The percentage of all eighth-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels in 2015. This is a one point decline over 2013, but still a two point increase over 2002.

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The percentage of all young men in fourth grade reading Below Basic on NAEP 2015. This is a one point decline over 2013 — and a five point decline since 2002. This is still six points higher than the 28 percent of young women in fourth grade reading Below Basic in 2015, which, by the way, is unchanged from two years ago, and five points lower than in 2002.

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The percentage of young men in fourth grade reading at Proficient and Advanced levels. This is a two point increase over 2013 and a six point increase over 2002. Still, young men still trail behind young women peers in fourth grade. Thirty-nine percent of them read at the highest academic levels on NAEP, unchanged from two years ago, yet five points higher than in 2002.

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The percentage of young men in eighth grade reading Below Basic in 2015. That’s two points higher than in 2013, but one point lower than in 2002. Meanwhile 20 percent of young women in eighth-grade read Below Basic, a two point increase over 2013 and unchanged from 2002.

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Percentage of young men in eighth-grade reading at Proficient and Advanced levels in 2015, two points lower than in 2013, but one point higher than in 2002. Meanwhile 40 percent of young women in eighth-grade read at the highest levels on NAEP, unchanged from 2013 and two points higher than levels 13 years ago.

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The percentage of black fourth-graders reading Below Basic on NAEP in 2015. This is two points lower than in 2013, and a 12 point decline from 2002. Forty-five percent of Latino fourth-graders read Below Basic (a two point decline over 2013 and an 11 point decrease over 2002); 48 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native fourth-graders read Below Basic (unchanged from 2013, and a mere one point decline over 2002); 21 percent of white fourth-graders read Below Basic (unchanged from 2013, but a four point decline over 2002); and 18 percent of Asian fourth-graders read Below Basic (a two point decline over 2013, and a 12 point decline over levels 13 years ago).

18

The percentage of black fourth-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels on NAEP in 2015. This is a one point increase over 2013, and a five point increase over levels in 2002. Twenty-one percent of Latino students read at the highest levels on NAEP in 2015 (a one point increase over 2013 and a six point gain over 2002); 21 percent of Native students read at Proficient and Advanced levels (unchanged from two years ago, and a one point decline over 2002); 36 percent of white students read at Proficient and Advanced (unchanged from 2013, but five points higher than in 2002); and 54 percent of Asian students read at the highest levels on NAEP (two points higher than two years ago, and 17 points higher than in 2002).

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The percentage of black eighth-graders reading Below Basic on NAEP in 2015. This is a three point increase over levels in 2013 and one point higher than in 2002. Thirty-four percent of Latino eighth-graders read Below Basic (a two point increase over 2013, but a nine point decrease over 2002); 15 percent of white eighth-graders read Below Basic (a one point increase over levels two years ago, but one point lower than in 2002); 37 percent of Native eighth-graders read Below Basic in 2015 (one point lower than two years ago, and two points lower than in 2002); and 14 percent of Asian eighth-graders read Below Basic (unchanged from 2013, but 10 points lower than levels 13 years ago).

16

The percentage of black eighth-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels in 2015. This is a one  point decline over 2013, but two points higher than in 2002. Twenty-one percent of Latino eighth-graders read at the highest levels on NAEP in 2015 (unchanged from 2013, but five points higher than in 2002); 44 percent of white eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced (two points lower than in 2013, but three points higher than levels 13 years ago); 22 percent of Native eighth-grade students read at the highest levels (three points higher than in 2013, and four points higher than in 2002); and 52 percent of Asian eighth-graders read at Proficient and Advanced levels (unchanged from 2013, but 16 points higher than levels 13 years ago).

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The percentage of fourth-graders on free- and reduced-priced lunch reading Below Basic on NAEP in 2015. This is a three point decline over 2013, and a 10 point decrease over levels in 2002. Meanwhile 17 percent of middle-class and wealthier students not eligible for school lunch read Below Basic in 2015, unchanged from 2013, but a six point decline over levels 13 years ago.

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The percentage of fourth-graders on free- and reduced-priced lunch reading at Proficient and Advanced in 2015. This is a one point increase over 2013, and a four-point increase over levels in 2002. Meanwhile 52 percent of middle-class families read at the highest levels in 2015, a one point increase over two years ago, and a 10 point increase over levels in 2002.

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The percentage of eighth-graders on school lunch reading Below Basic in 2015. This is a two point increase over 2013, but a four point decline over levels in 2002. Meanwhile 13 percent of eighth-graders not eligible for school lunch read Below Basic in 2015. This is unchanged from 2013, but still three points lower than in 2002.

20

The percentage of eighth-graders on school lunch reading at Proficient and Advanced levels in 2015. This is unchanged from 2013, but three points higher than in 2002. Meanwhile 47 percent of eighth-graders from middle class and wealthier households read at the highest levels in 2015. This is one point lower than in 2013, yet seven points higher than 13 years ago.


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Plenty of reformers and traditionalists will be worried about the overall lack of academic progress shown on this year’s edition of NAEP — and this alarm isn’t to be dismissed at all. Some will claim that demographic changes — most-notably the growth in the percentage of poor, Latino, and immigrant children — is the culprit. Others, ironically using data from the oldest and most-comprehensive of standardized tests, will argue that testing is to blame. And even a few will blame efforts to implement Common Core reading and math standards for throwing some kids off track.

But as the data suggests, none of these arguments hold water. If anything, what this year’s NAEP data provides is both good news and a call to action for advancing a second round of systemic reforms of American public education.

The good news? That we are continuing to improve literacy in the early grades. There are now 172,078 fewer functionally-illiterate fourth-graders than in 2002, the year the No Child Left Behind Act was passed. One must be cautious in ascribing these improvements to the reforms spurred by the passage of No Child and the accountability measures that led to its creation; after all, NAEP isn’t fine-tuned to measure specific policies. But the continuing improvements in fourth-grade achievement shows that there have been benefits from the law, which brought accountability to American public education, forced revelations of inflated graduation rates.

These reforms have been especially beneficial to children from poor and minority backgrounds, who have long been subjected to academic neglect and malpractice. Not only are fewer of them struggling with literacy by the time they reach fourth grade, more of them are reading at Proficient and Advanced levels. This is clear from the fact that 12 percent fewer black children read Below Basic this last school year than in 2002 — and that five percent more Latino children are reading at or above grade level in 2015 than 13 years ago. That there are more Latino children in public schools now than at the time George W. Bush signed No Child into law, and yet, are improving academically proves the too-many-immigrant-and-minority children argument to be pure sophistry.

As a result, more children are being kept out of special education ghettos long-used by American public education to warehouse the children that adults in schools don’t want to educate. This includes children helped by approaches that use test data to improve instruction and provide remediation. Contrary to the arguments of some traditionalists and erstwhile reformers, testing provides the data needed for improving student achievement. More importantly, NAEP data does suggest that stemming achievement gaps is a smart strategy in providing all children with high-quality education they deserve.

Meanwhile this year’s NAEP data offers evidence that reforms spurred in part by No Child are working. The percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic served by public charter schools — the schools of choice for poor and minority children in places where they can access them — declined by 10 percentage points (from 44 percent to 34 percent) between 2009 and 2015, versus a mere two percentage point decline (from 33 percent to 31 percent) for peers in traditional district schools. In that same period, the percentage of fourth-graders in charters reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by eight percentage points (from 23 percent to 31 percent) in that same period, versus a three percentage point increase (from 33 percent to 36 percent) for traditional district peers.

This year’s NAEP data also offers some insight, limited as it can be, on the importance of states advancing reform. Take Florida. There, the percentage of Florida fourth-graders struggling with literacy declined by 15 points (from 40 percent to 25 percent) between 2002 and 2015, while the numbers reading at and above grade level increased by 11 percentage points (from 27 percent to 38 percent). The percentage of black fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined by 19 percentage points (from 61 percent to 42 percent) in that period, while the percentage of Latino fourth-grade peers struggling with literacy declined by 18 percentage points (from 47 percent to 29 percent). The Urban Institute made this point earlier this week with its own analysis of earlier NAEP data.

Another example of the benefits of strong reform efforts at the state level: The District of Columbia. There, fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined by 25 percentage points (from 69 percent to 44 percent) between 2002 and 2015, while the number of kids reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by 17 percentage points (from 10 percent to 27 percent). This isn’t due to an influx of white middle-class children. The percentage of black children in D.C. reading at Proficient and Advanced levels more than doubled in the past 13 years (from seven percent in 2002 to 18 percent in 2015), while the percentage of black kids struggling with literacy declined by 20 percentage points (from 72 percent to 52 percent) over the past 13 years.

But the lower levels of eighth-grade achievement serves as evidence of a point Dropout Nation has made over the past few years: That the generation of reforms that culminated with the passage of No Child aren’t enough to help children master the knowledge they need — from algebra and statistics, to mastering the lessons from the Wealth of Nations and other great texts — for success in higher education and in life outside of school.

This means continuing the revamp of curricula and standards, overhauling how we recruit, train, evaluate, and compensate teachers, and using new approaches to building cultures of genius in which all children can thrive and succeed. This also means expanding opportunities for high-quality education — from greater access to Advanced Placement courses to the expansion of high-quality charter schools — so that children from poor and minority households, especially young black men and women who did the worst on NAEP this year (and have less access to college-preparatory courses in traditional districts) can succeed in school and in life.

Yet as seen with the battles over implementing Common Core reading and math standards, as well as the fights over implementing test score growth-based teacher evaluations, these reforms will be even more difficult to implement than the first round. The moves by states such as Massachusetts to stop using Common Core-aligned tests such as those developed by PARC and Smarter Balanced all but ensure that full implementation of the standards (as well as full utilization of data for teacher evaluations) will be incomplete, limiting the positive benefits of the reforms for our children.

Meanwhile the Obama Administration, along with Congressional Republican leaders, are undermining the first generation of reforms that have improved achievement for the past two decades. As Dropout Nation has documented over the past three years, the administration’s No Child waiver gambit is already damaging systemic reform efforts on the ground; the administration’s declaration last Saturday that there is supposedly too much testing, has also given ammunition to traditionalists and movement conservatives otherwise unconcerned with education policy. The plans for eviscerating No Child offered up by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander and House counterpart John Kline, if passed, would go further and eliminate any form of accountability. None of that is good for our children.

At the end of the day, it is clear that this year’s NAEP results are neither as good nor as bad as many will think. It is also clear that we have far more to do to help every child succeed in school and in life. And if we don’t fight furiously on their behalf, the progress made over the past two decades — and ultimately, the futures of another generation of children — will be lost.

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