By Ryan Quinn, Gazette Mail

In public schools in the majority of states, fourth-graders’ math scores held steady or improved on average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2017 to this year.

Not in West Virginia. It was among only three states to see statistically significant drops in their average scores in this area.

And West Virginia’s 5-point decrease on the 500-point scale was the biggest drop from 2017 to 2019. Wyoming and Vermont each saw 2-point drops.

West Virginia’s 2019 average score for public fourth-graders was 231, the lowest it’s been since 2005.

The national average is now 240. That’s about the same score the country has had for the past dozen years.

“Thank God for Mississippi,” that phrase sometimes uttered when West Virginia ranks low in yet another national ranking, doesn’t apply here.

Mississippi averaged a 241, above the national average.

High poverty is highly correlated to low test scores. Mississippi and West Virginia have among the nation’s highest child poverty rates. The West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy think tank said the state was sixth in the nation in 2018, with about a quarter of kids in poverty.

If you just look at students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, West Virginia’s scores get closer to the national average. But, complicating things, the state has been exceptional at getting children who aren’t low-income to also be eligible for free lunches.

West Virginia’s 231 average for public fourth-graders overall does still remain above its low point of 212 almost 30 years ago. But in fourth-grade reading, West Virginia has returned to its low point in data going back to 1992. In eighth-grade reading, they’ve been stuck at that low point for years.

In eighth-grade math, at least, West Virginia didn’t see a drop from 2017, but it saw more stagnation.

“While we’re not happy with these scores, we can’t say we’re surprised,” said Jan Barth, the state’s assistant superintendent over the Division of Teaching and Learning.

Michele Blatt, the state’s assistant superintendent over the Division of Support and Accountability, noted changes in West Virginia education over the past five years, including a new school accountability system to replace the A-F grading scale for whole schools, a new federal education law to comply with and new statewide tests that are separate from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“The focus was definitely not on instruction and student achievement during that timeframe,” Blatt said. “Now that standards, accountability and assessments are consistent now in policy, I think the focus now has to turn to instruction.”

Barth also raised the specter of the opioid crisis.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is abbreviated NAEP in education circles. It’s also dubbed the Nation’s Report Card.

NAEP tests various subjects at various intervals, but every two years it tests the same two subjects at the same two grade levels.

Those are reading and math in fourth and eighth grades. The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Education Department, publicly released the latest in those areas Wednesday.

The national picture isn’t rosy, with lower-performing students performing worse.

“Our students who are struggling with reading are where they were nearly 30 years ago,” Peggy Carr, the center’s associate commissioner, told reporters Tuesday.

“Over the past decade, there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest performing students are doing worse,” Carr said separately, in a news release.

But as for why the country and states look like this, Carr told reporters “the assessment is designed to tell you what, not why.”

Fourth-grade readingFrom 2017 to 2019, West Virginia and the nation saw drops in average reading scores in fourth grade public schools.

But West Virginia’s 4-point drop on the 500-point scale brought it down to 213. That’s about the lowest score since the 1992 start of that testing.

The state has been relatively flat in this area all this time. Its high was 219 around 2003 — 219 is now the national average in this area.

Eighth-grade reading, the average reading score for the state’s public eighth-graders dropped three points from 2017 to 2019.

That’s the same drop the nation saw.

The nation now averages a 262, compared to West Virginia’s 256.

Aside from 2015 and 2017, when West Virginia’s score in this area temporarily rose to about 260, the state has scored about a 256 going all the way back to 2005.

Eighth-grade reading testing began in 1998. The state is still scoring at its lowest point in all that time.

Its high point was a 264 in the early 2000s, when it was on par with the nation.

Eighth-grade math, West Virginia eighth-graders averaged a 272 in math.

That’s the same basic score they’ve gotten for the past dozen years. Statistically, it’s no different from the state’s record score of 274 six years ago. Most other states also saw no change in 2019. The nation’s eighth-graders now average a 281.

West Virginia’s low point in this grade and subject was 256 back in 1990, when testing in this area began.

NAEP stagnation unlike statewide standardized tests, which West Virginia has repeatedly changed over the past five years, the federal government has kept the NAEP largely the same. This allows for easier comparison of scores over a longer time.

Also, unlike statewide standardized tests, the NAEP isn’t given to nearly every student. It’s given to a representative sample.

Nationally, that included nearly 300,000 students tested in math and reading, the National Center for Education Statistics said.

Leaders of that center expressed concern about the national trends Tuesday.

“Eighth grade is a transitional point in preparing students for success in high school, so it is critical that researchers further explore the declines we are seeing here, especially the larger, more widespread declines across states we are seeing in reading,” Carr said.

James Woodworth, the center’s commissioner, said, “while mathematics scores typically have shown steady improvement over nearly 30 years of the NAEP program, we have seen little change in reading performance at both grades 4 and 8. It is especially discouraging to see declines for students at the lowest levels of achievement. Addressing these differences in growth needs to be a continued focus for research and policy.” Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com,

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