For the first time in about a decade, steady academic progress has halted for fourth- and eighth-grade students nationally and locally, according to new standardized test results released Wednesday.
After years of small but steady increases in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since its first administration nationally in 1990, the trend began to reverse this year.
The results were interpreted differently across the education spectrum. "The overall news from this round isn't good," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "Anyone who claims to have this all figured out is peddling a personal agenda."
Duncan theorized that the changing trend is due to an "implementation dip" caused by chaos from curricular changes in schools as districts teach new academic standards.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, blamed the declines on a struggling economy and an exaggerated emphasis on testing.
The scores "should give pause to anyone who still wishes to … make competition [and] scapegoating teachers … the dominant education strategies," Weingarten said in a statement.
She called for a "reset on education policy" following President Obama's announcement this weekend that standardized testing should not take up more than 2% of class time.
Nationally, the biennial average scores decreased slightly in math in both grades. In eighth-grade reading, average scores decreased slightly, and fourth-grade reading stagnated. NAEP has been considered the gold standard in measuring what students are learning, and where.
"This is the first time that we've seen drops for multiple groups of students across subjects and grades," said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy at the Education Trust, an education advocacy group.
Overall, Los Angeles, where the test has been given since 2003, landed in the bottom third of the 21 big cities whose results were reported. In fourth-grade reading, 21% of L.A. Unified students reached or exceeded proficiency, compared with 27% in the big cities overall, 27% in Chicago and 26% in New York.
"Our results are pretty much consistent with the national trend," said Cynthia Lim, director of LAUSD's Office of Data and Accountability. "Our reading scores are flat; our math scores are showing a slight decline."
In eighth-grade reading, Los Angeles' low-income students have increased their scores faster than students in any other district that have reported results since 2003, growing 16 points. In fourth-grade reading, Los Angeles' Latino students' scores grew faster than those in most of the cities that have reported the results since 2002.
In eighth-grade math, L.A. Unified was also the fastest-improving district for black students, gaining 21 points since 2003, compared with 11 points in big cities overall.
California landed toward the bottom. In 2015, between a quarter and a third of the state's students performed at or above proficiency on the various tests; in fourth-grade reading, 4 out of 10 students were deemed to be below basic. And, fewer than 1 in 5 students of color or low-income students met or exceeded proficiency on any test.
Across California, scores stagnated since 2013 at all levels — there were some small dips, which were not statistically significant. Between 2013 and 2015, California's Latino students' scores decreased slightly, but were flat in fourth-grade reading.
NAEP is administered by the Education Department's research arm, the National Center for Education Studies. It has no consequences for schools, and individual student scores are not released.
Officials urged caution in interpreting the results. "We don't know yet if these changes ... are long-term," said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of NCES.
Duncan echoed Carr's sentiments. He said, however, that he believes the scores were disappointing in part because the tests are not aligned with the new academic standards that students are being taught.
But Carr said it is unlikely that the misalignment was a major factor.