Rhode Island · School Talk

NAEP Scores Are a Major Wake Up Call for Little Rhody, Especially in Math

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores are out today and the news for Rhode Island is not good.

Often called the “nation’s report card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and mathematics assessments are administered to a representative sample of fourth- and eighth-grade students in each state every two years. NAEP scores offer something rare in education policy: data that are standardized across states and across time. Policymakers and pundits seize upon these data as evidence to support their preferred policies. (Urban Institute)

While there is one bright spot worthy of celebration when it comes to Hispanic students in 4th grade reading, the rest of the reading results remained pretty flat. On the math front, the news is particularly disappointing with the only significant changes since 2013 trending downward.  (Green is good news, yellow is not).


8th grade Hispanic students are up 7 points in reading since 2013 and that is good news, especially at a time that Rhode Island is grappling with a ranking of 50th on the success index for Latino children. We need to do better and in reading, at least at the 4th grade level, we are. But we only went up 1 point since 2015 so our gains have slowed quite a bit. 

But our proficiency continues to lag. Statewide in reading, 39 percent of our 4th graders scored proficient and 37 percent of our 8th graders did. 39 percent of our 4th graders are also proficient in math but that number falls to 30 percent for 8th graders.

And the declines in math are a disappointment and certainly reason for concern. And action. While there were no statistically significant changes at all for our Black students, Hispanic 8th graders dropped 6 points in math and white students fell in both 4th and 8th grade by 5 and 7 points, respectively. And while declines are the most dreaded result, flat scores are nothing to celebrate when they are as low as ours almost across the board.

How low?

Sometimes a picture tells a thousand words and in the case of education data, they are also often the easiest way to visualize and understand what can be confusing and even overwhelming information. 

Let’s start with average 8th grade math scores since 1990. The top graph shows students who do not qualify for free/reduced lunch and the bottom graph represents students who do.


Notice that “proficient” is 300 and we have not hit that mark.  Asian American students are the only subgroup to have ever hit that mark in Rhode Island and that was 2015. (Not sure why we don’t have data for them in 2017 but it could be because there were not enough Asian students who took the test. I will confirm that or find the data and update this post when I have it.)


4th grade students with disabilities in Rhode Island were seeing gains in math through 2007 but have since been on a steady decline. Their average scores have dropped 13 points over the past ten years.

English language learners were also on a positive trajectory from the year 2000 to 2010—with a couple blips—but saw a a 10 point drop between 2015 and 2017.



White 4th graders were showing improvement from 1990 until 2013 but saw a 5 point drop between 2013 and 2017. In much better news, Black 4th graders saw a 4 point gain during the same time frame. Hispanic 4th graders were gaining ground through 2013 but have seen a ten point decline over the past four years.

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Sound the Alarm on Our Math Performance

The most alarm inducing information relates to how we compare nationally in math. The Urban Institute has an interactive tool that allows us to look at adjusted and non-adjusted scores and see how we should have done, and how we actually did. Rhode Island not only underperforms those predictions but also finds itself almost at the bottom of the country for 4th grade math. The Urban Institute created the tools that allow us to look at adjusted scores and here’s how they explain it:

But comparing NAEP scores assumes that states serve the same students—and we know they don’t. A better way to compare and talk about NAEP performance is to use adjusted NAEP scores that account for demographic differences across students in each state. These adjusted scores allow for students to be compared with their demographically similar peers using factors such as race, receipt of special education services, and status as an English language learner. These are factors we know can affect test results, yet they are not shown in NAEP scores. The interactive tool below brings those adjusted NAEP scores to life.

Massachusetts is 3rd in the nation. Rhode Island is 44th. It is important to note that we remain one of the highest spending states in the education on education though Education Week has reported that despite our tiny size, our spending does vary greatly district to district and even school to school.

*The yellow dots indicate where states would predictably be based on their demographic data and the blue dot is indicative of where they actually are. The best case scenario is to have the yellow dot on the left and the blue dot on the right like Florida (who is now first in the country for both 4th grade reading and math. Congratulations Florida!)   

And it gets worse. We drop to 46th in the country in 8th grade math. Massachusetts comes in 1st in the nation.

The news on reading is nothing to cheer about but isn’t nearly as bad as the math. We are basically in the middle of the pack in reading coming in at 22nd in the nation for 4th grade reading and 23rd for 8th grade reading. We still underperform where we “should” be for both grades but the results aren’t nearly as concerning as the math side of the ledger.


It’s hard to know exactly what action needs to be taken to turn the tide and provide our students and families with the education they deserve and currently are not getting. But we would be wise to look to the states that are doing the best—Massachusetts and Florida, for example—and replicate what we can. I have written in the past about why our legislature needs to take action to make our state more like Massachusetts. RIPEC (Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council) agrees and Dan McGowan reported on it in 2016:

If Rhode Island wants to improve educational outcomes, it should follow Massachusetts’ lead by increasing state-level influence over large-sale school policies, make standardized testing part of its high school graduation requirements and give principals more power over everyday classroom decisions, according to a new study from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC).

Rhode Island has forever been in the shadow of Massachusetts, always seeming to fall short in setting education policies that actually move the needle for kids. Even when bold commissioners come in, their role is far more limited than in Massachusetts because they find themselves, by design, trapped in the world of policy and disconnected from implementation at the district level. So while Massachusetts sits at or near number one for both its district and charter schools, Rhode Island continues to find its performance in the bottom half of states despite spending the same amount of money.

Despite how tempting it may be, now is not a time for the blame game. It is, however, high time that we do whatever it takes—no matter how uncomfortable it may make some of us—to do right by students and that includes making student achievement a priority while we fight for newer and better facilities. Our children deserve to finally see their state near the top of these lists and it will take all hands on deck to get us there.


*This piece has been updated to correct mistake. It incorrectly stated that Hispanics had gone up 7 points in 8th grade reading but it should have said 4th graders. It also wrongly stated that the change was from 2015 but it should have said 2013. My apologies for the mistakes and thank you to a reader for flagging.


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