Workforce Challenges? NAEP Scores Show U.S. Must Start Solving Them with a Focus on Early Reading


The average 4th grade reading score dropped in 31 states since 2017. 8th grade reading scores dropped in 17 states.
Reading needs to become a national imperative and a domestic policy priority.

The 2019 Nation’s Report Card, released last week, showed alarming drops in reading and disappointingly middling results in math. This has huge implications for our nation’s future workforce and heartbreaking consequences for families across the country who are trusting our public education system for the most basic of learning goals. 

Compared to 2017, the average score in fourth grade reading dropped in 31 states and the eighth-grade reading average dropped in 17 states. Math is flat at best with the average score improving in just nine states since 2017. Even more devastating is the growth of the achievement gap. In the last decade, higher achievers are doing better while low achievers are doing worse.  

Until 2017, NAEP results had been steadily improving since the mid-2000s. 2015 saw one of the biggest across-the-board NAEP achievement jumps in recent history. The results released last week erase any progress made on NAEP since 2009. There are a few bright spots, which will be instructive around what is working, and we at the U.S. Chamber Foundation will be looking into these more closely. Reading results improved in two states – D.C. for fourth grade, and Mississippi for eighth. D.C., Mississippi, and Louisiana improved in eighth grade.

As leading advocates for improving K-12 education for the last 20 years, the U.S. Chamber has fought for high, rigorous learning standards, assessments aligned to those standards, college preparatory graduation requirements, and stronger focus on STEM. We have seen great success on the policy front, but sound policy in the absence of strong execution does not change outcomes for students.

Over the past couple of years, our policy makers have been shifting their attention away from the basics of reading, writing, and math fluency to workforce credentials and multiple pathways for students to obtain workplace skills. We can and must do both.

We have learned more about brain development and understand that the first five years of life provide an opportunity to lay a strong foundation upon which future learning is built. We must continue to focus on the fundamentals and expand our definition of how and when learning starts and ends.   

NAEP, the closest thing the United States has to a scientific study of the state of American education, is now calling on us to do more.    

If we have learned anything from our decades in this work, it is that there are no silver bullets. Educating every student is the hardest, most complicated work our democracy endeavors to achieve. Although math is primarily taught in school in a logical sequence and with a lot of instruction, reading is taught both in school and out of school with families, non-profits, and environmental factors contributing in significant ways. Until third grade, kids are learning to read and after third grade, they're reading to learn. 

Reading needs to become a national imperative and a domestic policy priority.

Make no mistake, the 2019 Nation’s Report Card presents one of the most sobering outlooks on public education in years, maybe decades. At a time when our society is inundated with “breaking news,” this data is more than worthy of our time, attention, and collective action.