What if I told you Alabama's eighth-grade reading and math scores are either worse or the same than they were more than two decades ago? 

Would you believe me over the various celebratory slogans touting Alabama's "progress in education achievement" on the same level as "winning a national championship?" You may have even seen the Alabama State Department of Education billboards declaring, "Alabama schools are on the rise." However, the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores highlight the current status of Alabama's public school students, and the data doesn't match the celebrity rhetoric.

NAEP, also known as The Nation's Report Card, is known as the "largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what students in public and private schools in the United States know and are able to do in various subjects," according to a recent press release.

NAEP is a congressionally mandated project by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. The Nation's Report Card has been a metric in student academic achievement since 1969. Participant schools are identified from the U.S. Department of Education's public school system database and then fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-grade students are randomly selected to participate in NAEP for up to two subjects. NAEP also assesses select private school students, but the 2022 state results are for public schools only. Most recently, NCES released the 2022 NAEP reading and math scores from public school fourth- and eighth-graders. While the NAEP scores are only a cross-section of public schools' test results, they have been a national benchmark for more than 50 years.  

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey stated, "This year's NAEP results confirm that Alabama's focus on core learning like reading and math is working and that in-classroom instruction matters." 

Governor Ivey is right in noting the state was correct in keeping its public schools open during the pandemic. She is also correct that reading and math is a core skill for a civil society. Important responsibilities such as balancing a checkbook and reading are essential for society. However, judging by the state's NAEP scores, is Alabama focusing on core learning? 

Here's what the full story of Alabama's NAEP scores really tell us: 

Although Alabama's rankings increased, its test scores didn't (except for one point out of 500 in fourth-grade reading) from the last NAEP assessment in 2019. Alabama's increased in the rankings because other states performed worse because they closed their schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

NAEP scores reveal the pandemic's significant effect on fourth- and eighth-graders' academic growth and well-being. 

Math and reading tests are scored out of 500 points. For math, results show a national average decrease of five points for fourth-graders and an eight-point decrease for eighth-graders. No states improved in math. In terms of student reading, the national average scores decreased three points in fourth- and eighth-graders. 

However, Alabamians are celebrating this year's results because Alabama went from dead-last at 52nd to 40th in math rankings, which Dr. Eric Mackey, state superintendent, called "huge for Alabama." In reading, Alabama's rank rose from 49th to 39th. 

Mackey has been involved in Alabama's public school system since 1993, first as a high school teacher, rising to superintendent of Jacksonville City Schools and then serving as the executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama (SSA) from 2011 until being named state superintendent in 2018. 

In response to the 2022 NAEP scores, Mackey went as far as to say, "We're definitely on the right path." 

However, does this "right path" lead to success? The jump in rankings seems like a great success, but the data unveils a larger story. 

The reality is that Alabamian public school students' test results aren't far superior to years past but that other states performed more poorly because they shut their schools down, and Alabama, to its credit and as Governor Ivey noted, kept its school doors open. What Alabamians are really celebrating is other states' scores significantly dropping more than Alabama's scores decreased, not superior educational achievements in our state. Alabama is celebrating student scores decreasing slower than other states. 

If Alabama's goal is academic success, it shouldn't be enough to celebrate climbing rankings when test scores decrease.

Here's what Alabama's 2022 NAEP scores reveal: 

All scores decreased for eighth-grade math and reading, and scores didn't improve in fourth-grade math. Fourth-grade reading was the only area that increased, but scores only increased by one point (from 212 to 213 out of 500 possible points). All fourth- and eighth-graders are below the national average in both reading and math. 

NAEP eighth-grade math scores are the same as they were in 2000, 22 years ago. Eighth-grade reading NAEP scores are four points lower than in 1998, 24 years ago. 

Out of 500 possible points, Alabama's average eighth-grade math score in 2022 was 264, the same as in 2000 and a three-point decrease from 269 in 2019. The state's average eighth-grade reading scores in 2022 were 251, two points less than 253 in 2019 and four points less than Alabama's average score of 255 in 1998.  

Poor performance, especially in critical skills, at the fourth- and eighth-grade level signals a potential systemic problem. Although NAEP scores aren't sorted by district, the bottom line is that the average student in AL enters and exits middle school without significant progression. In fact, Alabama's eighth-grade NAEP scores ranked nationally lower than the state's fourth-grader scores. 

This alone should be a wake-up call for Alabamians. Does the state want to be known for a dynasty of underperformance? NAEP scores have been a long-term metric to gauge academic success. Is it logical to maintain the same educational structure but expect different results year after year? 

If Alabama's scores are the same or lower than 24 years ago, it isn't time to double down on what the state has done in the past. To do so would be educational insanity. 

Emma Gibney is policy communications manager for the Alabama Policy Institute. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.

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