Today new results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, were released. To nobody’s surprise, overall fourth- and eighth-grade student scores in reading and math were down—way down.

The results were so bad even U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called them “appalling” and “unacceptable.”

Just 36% of fourth-graders and 26% of eighth-graders scored at or above proficient in math, representing the “[l]argest score declines in NAEP mathematics at grades 4 and 8 since initial assessments in 1990,” according to officials. Results were similarly dismal in reading.

Only 33% of fourth-graders and 31% of eighth-graders scored at or above proficient in reading, which is barely better than scores from 1992 when the assessment was first administered.

As tempting as it may be to blame forced COVID school closures primarily for such low student achievement, in reality they played a supporting role in worsening an already bad schooling status quo. 

At no time since 1990 has a majority of fourth- or eighth-graders overall achieved NAEP math proficiency. In fact, it’s been since 2013 when the highest reported percentage of students tested proficient or better in math, 42% of fourth-graders and 35% of eighth-graders. A similar trend is evident in reading.

Similarly, at no time since 1992 has a majority of fourth- or eighth-graders overall achieved NAEP reading proficiency. A record 37% of fourth-graders scored proficient or better in 2017, while a high of 36% of eighth-graders did so in 2017 and 2013.

Blaming low-income children cannot excuse such unacceptable performance.

Stunning proportions of students who are not eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a common (albeit imperfect) metric for identifying low-income students, are not proficient in math or 

reading. Among fourth-graders, just 51% of non-eligible students currently score at or above proficient in math, down from a high of 59% in 2013. In reading, only 46% score proficient, down from a high of 52% in 2017 and 2015.

A majority of non-eligible eighth-graders have never scored at or above proficient in math or reading since 2003 when NSLP results were first reported. Today only 38% of these eighth-graders score proficient or better in math, down from 49% in 2013, while just 41%t score proficient or better in reading, down from a high of 48% in 2017 and 2013.

And for anyone tempted to blame English learners for low reading scores, think again. 

The record high NAEP reading performance for non-EL fourth-graders was 40% at or above proficient back in 2017, compared to 37% today. Meanwhile, just 33% of non-EL eighth-graders score proficient or better in reading today, compared to a high of 38% in 2017 and 2013.

Not only are alarming proportions of students still not proficient in the core subjects of math and reading, we’re also seeing the continuing pattern of lower proficiency rates among eighth-graders compared to fourth-graders. We would expect to see children’s subject-level mastery improving the longer they’re in school, but we’re continuing to see the opposite instead.

Ultimately, however, it’s not students who are failing. It’s the government-run schooling monopoly that’s failing them.

In recent years, students have been subjected to any number of failed education policies, from Common Core nationalized standards, to critical race theory, politicized efforts at sexualizing younger and younger children, and even pronoun wars. 

Until parents—the real experts—are put back in charge of their children’s education, the “unacceptable” status quo will continue largely unchanged.