Iowa 12th grade reading and math scores stagnate

Pattern in line with national trend

The story for seniors at Iowa’s public high schools remains unchanged and is identical to that of their national counterparts. That’s according to the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress math and reading exams released Wednesday morning.

Data from the approximately 7,000 students sampled to take the math or reading tests in 2013 show that Iowans averaged scores of 156 (out of 300) in math and 291 (out of 500) in reading, both of which are unchanged from 2009, the last time these tests were administered to the state’s 12th-graders. National averages in 2013, which are 152 in math and 287 in reading, also remained stagnant from 2009.

While Iowa high-school seniors mean scores bested their national peers’ averages by four index points on both exams, analysis from the National Center of Education Statistics, which gives the exams, identified only Iowa’s reading performance as being a statistically significant difference.

To Jay Pennington, chief of the bureau of information and analysis services for the Iowa Department of Education, the results belie a much more concerning truth for Iowa’s 12th-graders.

“Iowa’s white students are underperforming compared to the nation,” he said. “Yes, we’re becoming more ethnically diverse as a state. However, we’re predominately homogeneous as a state. ... Your majority isn’t performing to the level it should. Unless something changes in terms of district practices, implementation of the Iowa Core, etc., as the state continues to diversify, you can expect our average to drop. To me that’s the startling fact as you dig into these results.”

Historically, students of color tend to average lower scores than their white peers on NAEP exams. That trend continued in 2013 for Iowans, where mean results for white students were 17 points higher in reading and 20 points higher in math than Latinos’. Those gaps widen to 31 points in reading and 34 in math between white and black students. In all cases, the National Center for Education Statistics classified those disparities as “not significantly different from the nation.”

With 20.2 percent of public school students identifying as learners of color, Iowa’s K-12 enrollment is more diverse than ever. Pennington was quick to point out, however, that this is not a black-or-white issue.

“I feel as a state we need to have a sense of urgency. We can’t rest on our laurels,” he said, noting that lots of positive things are occurring for education on the classroom and legislative levels. “If you can target raising expectations for all kids, you see the averages beginning to go up as well. I don’t think it’s just targeting these typically disenfranchised groups as well. ... These results show it needs to be a whole-system change.”

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