Nation’s Report Card: Gap Between Kentucky’s Highest and Lowest-Performing Students Continues to Grow

The first time I had the opportunity to travel to London, I was taken aback by the speed and efficiency of the London Underground. Affectionately called the “Tube” by locals, London’s network of underground railways is actually the world’s oldest metro system. It may not be the cleanest form of transportation in the world, but it’s remarkably fast, punctual, and budget-friendly for such a large and otherwise expensive city.

My favorite quirk, though, might actually be what the London Underground is best known for. As trains arrive and depart from each Tube station, a stern baritone can be heard over the intercom issuing a beloved Londoner phrase: “Mind the gap!”

And with last week’s release of the latest “Nation’s Report Card” results, I have a new gap on my mind.

Also known by edu-wonks as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Nation’s Report Card is an ongoing assessment of American students’ reading and math skills. The test is administered about every two years to students in grades 4 and 8, and it’s an important tool for measuring the progress of student academic performance. But in case you haven’t heard by now, the results from the most recent (2017) NAEP assessment were not exactly what we’d like to see.

On average, 4th and 8th grade students across the U.S. showed little to no growth in reading or math proficiency; only 8th grade reading scores have improved from the 2015 NAEP test. But again, those are averages, so that’s not to say there was no growth at all.

Based on data from past years, the truth is that the highest-performing students have actually tiptoed a bit higher on this year’s NAEP study. The issue, however, is that struggling students have continued to slip, resulting in a widening gap between the nation’s highest and lowest performing students. That would explain why the averages have been so stagnant.

That’s exactly what we’re seeing here in Kentucky, too. Here are the trends in Kentucky’s NAEP performance, courtesy of The Nation’s Report Card Kentucky Profile:

Like the nation as a whole, Kentucky has seen no significant changes in students’ achievement since 2015 — other than in 4th grade reading, which decreased. At least there’s some reassurance in the fact that Kentucky is pretty much on par with the nation at large.

But the real value of the Nation’s Report Card isn’t actually its assessment of what’s happening in the here-and-now — it serves better as a tool for helping us understand trends that have been occurring over time, or possibilities for what might happen down the road. That’s why this gap is so troubling.

So for example, in 2015, the average scoring gap between White and Black students in 8th grade math was 23 points. Yikes. But on last year’s NAEP study, that gap had grown to 30 points. White students performed slightly higher, Black students performed noticeably lower, and the achievement gap as a whole grew further apart.

The same thing happened with those 4th grade reading scores, where the 2015 gap between White and Black students was 18 points. In 2017, that deficit grew by an additional 7 points. It didn’t stop there, either — the 4th grade reading gap also increased between White and Hispanic students, and showed no movement between those students who receive free or reduced lunch and those who don’t.

That tells me a couple of things. First, that inequity is still persistent — and obviously so — within our public schools, and that it’s making itself known early on in our kids’ school years. But also, these scores tell me that if we really are serious about “minding the gap,” we need to be sounding the alarms — because what we’re doing isn’t working out so well.

If you should ever find yourself in the London Underground, take a peek down below the brightly-marked station platforms and you’ll notice scattered heaps of discarded rubbish, lost pocket change, and used railway tickets. If the recent NAEP results become a trend, I fear that more and more of our students may find themselves slipping through the cracks as well. Kentucky’s students deserve more than that.


Photo by Christopher Brown, CC-Licensed.

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