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Indiana’s NAEP scores show biggest decline in math as leaders weigh COVID’s fallout

Students sit at desks with paper and pencils

Indiana’s NAEP scores dropped from 2019, following a national trend of a decline in scores on the exams in math and reading for fourth and eighth graders.

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Indiana students’ math and reading scores on “the nation’s report card” declined from pre-pandemic results, with the state’s average math scores declining the most.

Scores released Monday from the most recent National Assessment Educational Progress — or NAEP — showed that 33% of fourth graders and 31% of eighth graders were proficient or better in reading, while 40% of fourth graders and 30% of eighth graders were proficient or better in math. 

Those proficiency rates were lower than in 2019 except in fourth grade reading, where the rates are statistically about the same as in 2019. 

Indiana’s average reading scores were around the national average this year, and math scores were higher than the national average scores. 

However, nearly all demographic groups of Indiana students had an average score below NAEP’s proficiency benchmark, although the bar for achieving proficiency on NAEP tests is generally higher than it is for state exams.

Indiana’s results also reflect nationwide trends on NAEP following the pandemic’s disruptions to schools: unprecedented and not unexpected declines — affecting students in virtually every state and every region of the country. 

While NAEP scores often attract attention and generate debate, this year’s results will be closely scrutinized by educators, public officials, and others trying to get a handle on how (and how much) COVID has disrupted student learning in different cities and states, as well as nationally. 

The state has already launched multiple efforts aimed at academic recovery, such as Indiana Learns, a tutoring program funded through federal relief dollars that gives fourth and fifth grade students up to $1,000 for math and reading tutoring. 

In August, the state announced its largest-ever targeted investment in literacy — $111 million — with many of the funds aimed at training teachers. 

Charity Flores, the chief academic officer at the Indiana Department of Education, told the state board of education in July that this is year two of academic recovery from the pandemic that could take three to five years. The NAEP data supports that timeline, she said. 

What is NAEP?

The main NAEP in reading and math is typically administered every two years. Students in the fourth and eighth grade last took the exam in 2019. Data comes from a representative set of students nationwide which allows for comparisons across states and some cities, although no cities in Indiana.

Unlike state exams or tests students might take for a regular class, these tests are low stakes for individual students, teachers, and schools. In other words, results aren’t used to, say, evaluate teachers or grade students. 

Results are based on a sample of students, so there is a margin of error — or uncertainty — in the scores. This is particularly important for reading the state and city scores, which have higher margins of error than the country as a whole. 

In addition to the impact they could have on national and state responses to the pandemic, the new NAEP results could also revive polarizing disputes about the precise impact of policies such as shutdowns of in-person learning. 

While Indiana schools largely attempted to return to some form of in-person learning in the fall of 2020, the 2020-21 school year was characterized by abrupt switches between in-person and online learning, hybrid schedules, being quarantined, and precautions such as masking and social distancing. There were fewer such disruptions in the 2021-22 school year.

How Indiana’s NAEP scores stack up

This year’s NAEP results were released for students in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Department of Defense’s education agency.

In reading, Indiana had proficiency rates that were similar to 40 other states or jurisdictions, and just a few had proficiency percentages that were considered significantly higher than Indiana’s.

In math, Indiana’s scores were on par with roughly half the states or jurisdictions. 

Among eighth graders, for instance, only Department of Defense schools and Massachusetts had significantly higher percentages of students who were proficient or better in math, while 23 states or jurisdictions had proficiency rates similar to Indiana’s.

Flores said the results from different states provide a way to look for strategies that were successful elsewhere and implement them in Indiana, she said. 

For example, Flores said that following Mississippi’s success with instructional coaches in reading, Indiana announced up to $60 million for instructional coaches focused on literacy in elementary schools, as part of the state’s $111 million targeted investment in literacy. 

Additionally, Indiana’s education department is working with the University of Indianapolis to provide instructional coaching in the STEM fields. 

Different student groups struggle on NAEP

Indiana’s NAEP results can also be split into multiple subgroups of students by race, gender, economic status, geography, and more.

The vast majority of these subgroups had average scores that were below NAEP’s proficiency benchmarks.

No subgroups had significant improvement in their scores from 2019 across the reading and math exams. Among the subgroups whose scores declined significantly from 2019 to 2022, the group with the biggest score drop was eighth-grade English learners in reading followed by Black eighth graders in math, fourth-grade English learners in math, and Hispanic fourth graders in math.

English learners, students with disabilities, and Black students in both grades had some of the lowest average scores on all four tests in 2022, making those groups the furthest from being considered proficient in a subject.

Additionally, students who attend urban schools or are from low-income backgrounds had some of the lowest scores in fourth grade math and reading.

In three of the NAEP exams — fourth grade math, fourth grade reading, and eighth grade reading — boys did about the same in 2022 as they did in 2019, but girls’ average scores dropped. 

Looking to the next NAEP results

While NAEP and other exams have shown that academic progress was derailed during the pandemic, the declines don’t mean that students didn’t learn anything or forgot things they already knew between 2019 and 2022. Rather, students did learn over that period, but progressed at slower rates than their peers had in prior years.

Some recent data has suggested that students nationwide have begun to recover lost ground.

Flores noted that the decline in student performance, especially in reading, is mirrored in results from Indiana’s state exams.

ILEARN results dropped sharply from 2019 to the next time students took the state test in 2021. Results then increased slightly from 2021 to this year, indicating that a rebound may be under way, but 2022 results were still below pre-pandemic scores. 

Flores said she aims to see a similar pattern in about two years, when the next set of NAEP reading and math scores for fourth and eighth graders are due to be released.

“We’ll have a bit of time and utilize strategies to support academic recovery,” she said. “I hope that in two years, we’ll start to see the impact of those sustained efforts.”

Chalkbeat Indiana reporter Aleksandra Appleton and Chalkbeat national reporter Matt Barnum contributed to this story.

MJ Slaby is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact MJ at mslaby@chalkbeat.org.

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