Test Scores Reflect Media, Political Agendas, Not Student or Educational Achievement [UPDATED]

In the US, the crisis/miracle obsession with reading mostly focuses on NAEP scores. For the UK, the same crisis/miracle rhetoric around reading is grounded in PIRLS.

The media and political stories around the current reading crisis cycle have interested and overlapping dynamics in these two English-dominant countries, specifically a hyper-focus on phonics.

Here are some recent media examples for context:

Let’s start with the “soar[ing]” NAEP reading scores in MS, LA, and AL as represented by AP:

‘Mississippi miracle’: Kids’ reading scores have soared in Deep South states

Now, let’s add the media response to PIRLS data in the UK:

Reading ability of children in England scores well in global survey
Reading ability of children in England scores well in global survey

Now I will share data on NAEP and PIRLS that shows media and political responses to test scores are fodder for their predetermined messaging, not real reflections of student achievement or educational quality.

A key point is that the media coverage above represents a bait-and-switch approach to analyzing test scores. The claims in both the US and UK are focusing on rank among states/countries and not trends of data within states/countries.

Do any of these state trend lines from FL, MS, AL, or LA appear to be “soar[ing]” data?

The fair description of the “miracle” states identified by AP is that test scores are mostly flat, and AL, for example, appears to have peaked more than a decade ago and is trending down.

The foundational “miracle” state, MS, has had two significant increases, one before their SOR commitment and one after; but there remains no research on why the increases:

Scroll up and notice that in the UK, PIRLS scores have tracked flat and slightly down as well.

The problematic elements in all of this is that many journalists and politicians have used flat NAEP scores to shout “crisis” and “miracle,” while in the UK, the current flat and slightly down scores are reason to shout “Success!” (although research on the phonics-centered reform in England since 2006 has not delivered as promised [1]).

Many problems exist with relying on standardized tests scores to evaluate and reform education. Standardized testing remains heavily race, gender, and class biased.

But the greatest issue with tests data is that inexpert and ideologically motivated journalists and politicians persistently conform the data to their desired stories—some times crisis, some times miracle.

Once again, the stories being sold—don’t buy them.


Three Twitter threads on reading, language and a response to an article in the Sunday Times today by Nick Gibb, Michael Rosen

[1] Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education10(1), e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314


Mainstream media continues to push a false story about MS as a model for the nation. Note that MS, TN, AL, and LA demonstrate that political manipulation of early test data is a mirage, not a miracle.

All four states remain at the bottom of NAEP reading scores for both proficient and basic a full decade into the era of SOR reading legislation: