NAEP 4th Grade Reading Scores over time. Screenshot from NEAP/US DOE

This week, the US Department of Education today released the 2017 results of its National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) better known as the Nation’s Report Card.

In what has become a grim ritual for the past 10 years, the numbers show no meaningful improvement in achievement and massive disparities for students of color, students with disabilities, and students growing up in poverty.  There are of course some bright spots, but on the whole it truly is a story of “national stagnation.”

During what often feels like a time of political paralysis, when even wildly popular policies like the fix to DACA can’t get done, it’s easy to write this off as another example of something that’s just stuck in limbo.  But the truth is quite the opposite. NAEP is telling us three things loud and clear–but there’s one thing it’s not telling us.

1) The New Digital Divide is in Early Reading

While NAEP has been gradually (and somewhat painfully) shifting to an online assessment, this year was the first in which the majority of students took the digital version.  This mirrors the trend in state assessments, the majority of which are now also taken on a digital device.

There are several studies that have shown that students perform worse on tests taken online rather than on paper.  The reason most commonly cited is that students, particularly those from lower income households, have less comfort and familiarity with the devices they take the test on.

2) Device Access Isn’t the Issue

While there’s no doubt that affluent students have better access to technology, that gap is closing rapidly and the amount of time kids spend on non-television screen time has increasing dramatically –from 5 minutes a day on average in 2011 to 48 minutes in 2017.

A similar transformation is taking place as the ratio of students to devices at school continues to quickly drop.  In 2017, 50% of public school teachers reported that they have a device for every student in their classroom.

So if the problem isn’t access, then why is there a persistent gap in how students do on paper versus digital assessments?  It’s about how teaching happens–kids are mostly taught reading with paper books and paper handouts, and then tested with digital passages.

If we were going through the paper revolution, moving towards a future where people did less reading online and more reading on paper, this would make sense–but of course, it’s really the exact opposite that’s happening.

3) Money Matters

Whether it’s buying devices or training teachers and paraprofessionals on how to use them, school budgets are hurting almost universally.

Twenty-nine states still have not returned to pre-recession spending levels in education.  Nationally, we are spending $450 less per student than we did in 2008, adjusted for inflation.  In a typical elementary school of about 500 students, that’s a $225,000 budget difference.

Teachers are on the march in Kentucky in Oklahoma because of their unconscionably low pay, and it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that those states turned in some of the worst scores in fourth grade reading.  In 28 states, teachers are paid less today in real dollars than they were in 2000.  It’s no wonder that principals report budgets and their teacher morale worry them the most.

At some level it’s a minor miracle that NAEP has more or less stayed flat during a decade of decreased funding and rising poverty among schoolchildren.  While simply throwing money at the problem is unlikely to help, smart allocations of dollars to address the crisis in school funding would go a long way in getting achievement growth back on track.

There’s also one thing that we should not take away from the NAEP story, both for this year and the past 10 years:

What We’re Doing Isn’t Working

While there are many matters of reading policy that reasonable people might disagree with, the one conclusion is that we should all be able to agree on is that our current approach at both the state is failing our kids.

Reading is a human and a civil right, and the bedrock of a child’s ability to learn and engage with the world around them. Yet only 37% of American fourth graders tested as proficient readers and among students of color and students growing up in poverty that number drops to 20%.

While 2017’s numbers show an improvement of 4 percentage points over the past 10 years, these are not ‘stay the course’ numbers.  If we keep going at this pace, it will be the year 2052 before even a slim 51% majority of American children will be proficient readers.

It’s time for educators and policymakers to rethink their approaches to early reading, by investing more in teachers and schools and by embracing the digital text revolution. This will bring teaching practices into line with how the vast majority of written text is now consumed.

We get only one chance at this–if students don’t master reading at a young age they will face a host of hardships throughout their lives.  We owe it to our kids to do better.