Jonathan Small | July 18, 2023

Reading and math results alarming

Jonathan Small

The surge of inflation under President Joe Biden has given many people flashbacks to the 1970s. Sadly, the latest data released by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) evokes a similar sense of déjà vu.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) administered the NAEP long-term trend reading and mathematics assessments to 13-year-old students from October to December of the 2022–23 school year.

The results provide much reason for alarm.

First, scores were notably lower than in pre-COVID testing. But scores fell so much, particularly among some groups, that decades of progress have been erased.

NAEP trends show that students now score just one point higher than their counterparts in 1971 in reading. And the trendline shows students in the two lowest quintiles are now scoring worse than their 1971 counterparts.

Those poor results are not the product of subpar spending. Inflation-adjusted K-12 education spending per student increased by 280 percent from 1960 to 2020 in the U.S.

The average scores for 13-year-olds declined four points in reading and nine points in mathematics compared to the previous assessment administered during the pre-COVID 2019–20 school year.

But the decline isn’t simply the product of COVID disruptions. Compared to a decade ago, the average NEAP scores declined seven points in reading and 14 points in mathematics.

To put that in perspective, 10 points on the NAEP roughly equals a grade level worth of average academic progress.

The problem for Oklahoma is that our academic results are typically among the bottom 10 states, so if a national decline in outcomes is underway, we’re likely further behind than most states.

This year’s approval of school-choice expansion will help by giving more Oklahoma families access to additional options, including private school. But that doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore what’s going on in our public schools.

To their credit, state lawmakers increased funding for reading efforts this year, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has called for devoting even more effort to reading initiatives.

Given the decline in reading outcomes nationally, particularly among students who were already struggling, this makes sense.

In 2012, NAEP found that 27 percent of students reported reading for fun every day. But in 2023, just 14 percent reported the same. Conversely, the share of students who said they almost never read for fun or did so just a few times per year surged from a combined 33 percent in 2012 to 47 percent in 2023.

There’s an obvious correlation between reading for fun and excelling academically. Without learning to read, students will not master other subjects as they progress through school.

It’s not enough to increase spending. Lawmakers must also ensure money is spent to good effect. Otherwise, too many students may be “stuck in the ‘70s” for years to come.

Jonathan Small President

Jonathan Small


Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.

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