‘Nation’s report card’ tells a similar story to ILEARN — most Indiana students are behind

Amid concerns over low scores on Indiana’s new standardized test, ILEARN, new results from a national exam tell a similar story about student performance.

Scores from the National Assessment Educational Progress, or NAEP, released Wednesday, showed 37% of eighth graders statewide were proficient in reading and math, and 37% of fourth graders were proficient in reading and 47% were proficient in math.

Those results fall in line with the 2019 ILEARN results, which saw 37.1% of students in Indiana pass both the math and English portions of the exam.

While some educators were concerned about the frequent changes to state tests and standards, one expert said that while it’s concerning that only about one-third of students in Indiana are considered at grade level, the similarity means ILEARN is closer to matching the rigor of the national exam. Under previous state tests, Indiana saw much higher percentages of students passing, compared to the national exam.

“I think it indicates that Indiana’s test is set to a high level … which is a change,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative national education think tank. “It used to be that basically no state came anywhere close. They’d say 70%-80% of students are proficient. The fact that we now have these results matching means that Indiana really has followed through on its promise to raise standards.”

Indiana’s NAEP scores dropped slightly in 2019, mirroring a drop in scores nationally. The national exam, often called the Nation’s Report Card, serves as a way for states to see how they stack up to the rest of the country.

In math, Indiana ranks seventh out of 50 states and D.C. for fourth grade and 14th in eighth grade, dropping from sixth and 12th, respectively. The state saw the biggest change in reading, falling to 17th, from 9th, in the rankings for fourth grade and 12th, from sixth, in eighth grade.

Despite these slides, Indiana remained above the national average in both reading and math and among the top half of states in every category.

“As with ILEARN, (national) assessment results are merely a snapshot of performance at a single point in time, and do not provide the total reflection of student achievement,” said State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick in an email statement Tuesday. “Ensuring Indiana students are becoming academically proficient is the goal of the Department and educators across the state.”

Nationally, average reading scores were lower for both fourth- and eighth-grade students, compared to 2017. Average math scores increased by one point for fourth graders and declined by one point for eighth graders.

Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said this isn’t the first time the country has seen a decline in scores. While the one-point decrease on test scores between 0 and 500 among fourth-grade students is small, the three-point decline among eighth-graders was substantial, federal officials said. While scores fell for students at all levels, they fell furthest for low-achieving students.

“As much as 31 states are driving it,” Carr, who oversees assessments for agency, said of the decreases. “That is a very meaningful decline.”

The national assessment is administered every two years to a sample of students nationwide. Some 600,000 students took this year’s exams on tablet computers between January and March. Indiana has more frequently seen its scores stay the same or improve with big jumps in 2013.

Petrilli said the results partially reflect what is happening in schools, but are also impacted by larger forces. He believes the country is seeing a decline now because this cohort of students were born or young during the recession. Amid the economic downturn, birth rates slowed, poverty soared, and schools were forced to cut spending.

“To me, the picture here is that kids who are born during the Great Recession face some great challenges, and that we are still dealing with it,” Petrilli said. “We need schools to do more than they’ve ever done before to help these students achieve.”