Math and reading test scores for the nation's 13-year-old students fell between 2012 and 2020 for the first time in the nearly 50-year history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term trend (LTT) assessment, according to results released Thursday by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
In an accompanying announcement, the NAEP said the performance of 9-year-olds was unchanged.
In both age groups and subjects, the results for lower-scoring test-takers declined since 2012, mirroring patterns observed in other subjects.
Math scores for lower-performing students declined among students from both age groups, in addition to declining for 13-year-olds at the 50th percentile.
Reading scores also declined for both the lowest-performing 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds at the 10th percentile, and the percentages of 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds who report that they "never or hardly ever" read for fun have increased significantly since the question was included in 1984.
"This was the first time in the almost 50-year history of the long-term trend assessments that we observed declines among 13-year-olds," NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr said in a statement. "These performance drops are especially notable among lower-performing students, who no longer demonstrate competency in skills that students were able to do almost a decade ago in both subjects and age groups."
In addition, math scores at age 9 declined for females but did not change for males, resulting in males outperforming females in 2020. There was no score difference between the genders in 2012.
For Black and Hispanic 13-year-olds, scores declined in mathematics, while scores for White students and students of other races and ethnicities did not change.
The score decline for Black students reportedly resulted in a wider score gap with White students.
There were no significant score changes by race, ethnicity or gender in reading.
Conversely, both reading and math scores have improved for 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds in all racial and ethnic groups and genders since the NAEP LTT assessment – also known as the "Nation's Report Card" – began in the 1970s.
In comparison with the 1970s, 2020 scores in the subjects were higher at all selected percentiles with one exception.
The release noted that the reading score for the lowest-performing 13-year-old students at the 10th percentile was not significantly changed.
The assessment was administered to 13-year-olds between October and December 2019 and to 9-year-olds between January and March 2020.
Seventeen-year-olds are typically included in the data, but US News reported Thursday that COVID-19 restrictions had prevented the age group from participating.
"Scores were declining, particularly for the lowest-performing students, before the pandemic," Carr added. "Next year’s long-term trend assessment of 9-year-olds will provide insight into the performance of students in this age group after the widespread school closures in March 2020."
"These data show that student progress declined or was stalled even before the COVID-19 pandemic," former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board which sets policy for NAEP, said in a separate release. "Clearly, these results raise the alarm at all levels that education policy to change these results must be a top priority."
The NAEP is a congressionally authorized project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and is administered every eight years in math and reading only. Other NAEP exams are administered every three years.