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Even Before Pandemic, National Test Finds Most Seniors Unready for College Reading, Math

Little more than 1 in 3 American 12th graders read proficiently and fewer than 1 in 4 performed proficiently in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2019, marking widening gaps for struggling students in both subjects.

The results of the latest round of tests dubbed the Nation's Report Card, which were administered before the start of the pandemic last spring, found the average math score has been Pflat since 2015, while the average reading score dropped 2 points on a 500-point scale. All told, while 61 percent of high school seniors who took NAEP last year reported they had applied to or been accepted at a four-year college, only 37 percent performed well enough in both math and reading to be considered ready for freshman college courses in those subjects, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP.

The performance of students who were already struggling—in the 25th percentile or below—declined in 2019 across both reading and math in grades 4, 8, and 12 in 2019 compared to four years ago. The 10 percent of students struggling the most has dropped 20 points since 1992, a record low.

Peggy Carr, the NCES associate commissioner, said background questionaires given with the tests showed deep uncertainty among students: "We asked students about their confidence in being able to respond to the questions and students were very clear that they didn't know or feel very confident in some very basic fundamental skills when it comes to reading—being able to recognize the author's purpose, being able to identify specific things—or being able to conduct some basic fundamental math operations."

NCES found more students at all proficiency levels have started taking advanced math courses, such as calculus and trigonometry, but that more advanced study hasn't translated to greater understanding of those topics. While 62 percent of students who performed below basic in 2005 took advanced courses, 81 percent of below basic students did so in 2019.

"This is a curious finding," said Grady Wilburn of NCES. "You would think that more advanced courses would correlate with students moving out of the below basic category. However, our results don't show that relationship." In fact, the percentage of students below basic increased in math in grades 8 and 12 and in reading at all three grades in 2019.

"For students who are leaving high school when our democracy, economy, and personal safety all require more ability to understand, use, and apply math, holding steady is not success," said National Council of Teachers of Mathematics President Trena Wilkerson in an email. "Each and every student must be equipped to use math to make sense of our world and to increase their opportunities moving forward."

The 2019 NAEP included a representative sample of some 50,000 students from 1,800 schools nationwide. However, there was not a clear enough sample for NCES to break out data for low-income 12th graders as it did among students in grades 4 and 8.